Sunday, April 23, 2017

Crazy Talk: A Bipartisan Climate Change Solution

This appeared in the print version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on 4.22.17:

Call me crazy, but I think the time is ripe for a bipartisan solution to address climate change, which will help to preserve our wonderful planet Earth. A recent study done by the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication reports that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and a majority of us acknowledge that humans, through greenhouse gas emissions from our various activities, are causing the climate to change. These numbers show that Americans have come to accept what climate scientists have been telling us for years.
The report also shows, however, that we generally think that climate change is something that affects others, and not us individually. But the people of North Carolina are already feeling the effects of climate change, which will be even more heightened if we do not come together to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Last fall in WNC, we witnessed one of the most severe droughts we have seen in this region, which laid the foundation for the devastating wildfires that impacted thousands of us. Our coasts will be significantly impacted, with rising sea levels and stronger storms, and our 50,000 farmers (cultivating over eight million acres of N.C. land) could see more temperature extremes, drought, and crop-damaging storms.
Daily, we read and hear about the political deadlock in Washington, but there are some promising signs and trends concerning climate change that are flying under the radar. In February of this year, the conservative Climate Leadership Council, led by stalwart Republicans James Baker III, George Shultz and Henry Paulson, all of whom served as cabinet members under Republican presidents, issued a report with a plan to address climate change. The opening line of the report reads, “Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore.”
In addition, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives has grown from 10 to 36 members in the past three months. The Caucus, which is made up of 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats, representing districts from Florida to Pennsylvania, Nebraska to Oregon, explores policy options to address the impacts and causes of a changing climate.
Another positive sign comes from a recent survey of 21 college Republican clubs conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The study found that about half of the clubs held views that climate change is real and is largely human-caused, and about a quarter of them described their clubs as having mixed views on the subject; only two clubs reported that their members were generally skeptical about climate change. Nick Frankowski, chairman of Ohio State University’s College Republicans, had this to say: “The evidence is fairly overwhelming that climate change is a thing,” he said. “The biggest debate is, of course, what to do about it.”
What to do about it, indeed. The Trump administration has rejected federal command-and-control action on climate change, with its recent executive order to disassemble the already-stalled Clean Power Plan. However, with strong public support for our elected officials to address climate change, there is room for a bipartisan, market-based solution: a relatively simple system of carbon pricing, with all fees collected, minus a small administrative fee, returned to American households.
The proposal presented by the Climate Leadership Council, led by the group of conservatives mentioned above, would charge a fee for fossil fuels “to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port.” The authors continue, “Economists are nearly unanimous in their belief that a carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce carbon emissions. A sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.” Under this plan, the fees collected would be returned to Americans by the Social Security Administration, and the authors estimate that a family of four would receive about $2,000 in dividend payments the first year.
The nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for which I volunteer, proposes a similar system of carbon fee and dividend (though the details are slightly different), with a similar border tax adjustment made for exports and imports to keep the system fair for American companies and consumers, and to encourage other nations to adopt a similar system of carbon pricing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the former CEO of Exxon Mobil — has publicly supported a carbon fee and dividend system, too.
We have a lot riding on the pressing issue of climate change, and every being on Earth is facing it. Though Americans seemingly do not see eye-to-eye on many issues today, there is strong and growing support from all angles of the political spectrum to accept the challenge and act on climate change, preserving our wonderful planet. Current and future generations depend on a clean, stable, environment and climate, and a market-based system for pricing carbon would be a great step to that end. Reps. Meadows and McHenry and Sens. Tillis and Burr need to hear from us, no matter our individual political ideologies, as this plan can and should be supported by Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and otherwise. The rest of the world’s nations remain steadfast in their commitments made at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit to act; it is now time for America to step up and lead, to the benefit of us all.
Michael Hill teaches mathematics and environmental science at Asheville School. His blog on environmental issues can be found at

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Conservatives and progressives unite to fight climate change

This was an original piece for Mountain XPress, appearing in print on April 12, 2017, and electronically on April 15, 2017.

Quick: Name an event you’ve attended recently where progressives and conservatives, and everyone in between, have come together to calmly and collaboratively discuss solutions for tackling a critically important global issue. Nothing comes to mind? Well, that’s exactly what happened at The Collider in downtown Asheville March 25-26, when 80 people from Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina came together for the Mid-South Regional Conference of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots group advocates for national policies to address climate change. The focus is on passing federal legislation to create a revenue-neutral, carbon fee-and-dividend program in which companies would pay a fee for extracting fossil fuels based on how many tons of carbon dioxide the use of those fuels would produce. After covering the modest administrative costs, all remaining revenues would be returned to American households in the form of checks from the Treasury Department. We’re proposing an initial fee of $15 per ton, increasing by $10 a ton annually. Studies predict that such a program would result in the creation of 2.1 million jobs and more than a 50 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions over 20 years.
If the Climate Lobby can persuade Southern members of Congress to support the proposal, there’s reason to believe it could become federal law. “If we succeed in the South, we succeed nationally,” Don Addu, the organization’s Southeast regional director, told the conference.
Asheville chapter leader Steffi Rausch and her counterparts from other chapters briefly summarized their groups’ activities. After that, participants were treated to inspirational talks by local agricultural expert and author Laura Lengnick, who runs the consulting firm Cultivating Resilience, and Drew Jones, co-director of the Asheville-based nonprofit Climate Interactive. Addressing the assembled volunteers, Jones, a globally recognized expert on climate change modeling, said, “You all are the right people working at the right angle on the right issue.”

Positive trends

Jones illustrated several scenarios, concluding that in order to prevent catastrophic impacts, humans must start now to first cap and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (To get a better sense of this, check out C-ROADS, Climate Interactive’s free policy simulator.) To that end, noted Jones, 64 national and subnational jurisdictions have enacted carbon fees.
He also highlighted some global trends, including a slowdown in China’s production and consumption of coal, and the plummeting costs of wind (50 percent drop since 2009) and solar energy systems (80 percent drop since 2008). But even these positive developments aren’t enough — and that’s where the carbon pricing program comes in.
The conference included several sessions training volunteers in how to lobby effectively, build relationships and engage the community. Other sessions specifically addressed such topics as reaching out to conservatives, practicing active listening, and holding a lobbying meeting with members of Congress and their staffers. Participants heard about efforts by the Charleston, W.Va., chapter to bring the idea of a carbon fee-and-dividend program to the very heart of coal country.
I’ll be honest: I struggled at first with the idea of proactively engaging with members of Congress, regardless of their ideological bent and party affiliation. Sometimes I just want to scream and shout, “We have to do something about climate change now! What do you mean ‘The science is unsettled.’ Are you kidding?”
Now, however, I’m all in with that approach, because this issue is too crucial for me to hold grudges or think that I alone have the solution. I’m a pragmatist. I want to see the high elevation spruce/fir forests survive in Western North Carolina, see our native brook trout thrive. Most of all, I want my children, your children and our grandchildren to grow up in a world with a stable climate.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby declares itself to be “relentlessly optimistic,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. I find these volunteers’ positive spirit and enthusiasm to be contagious. I hope you will, too.
To find out more about CCL or get on the mailing list, visit To keep up with the Asheville chapter’s activities, visit
Michael Hill teaches mathematics and environmental science at the Asheville School and volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. You can find his blog at

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cultivating Wildness

This was an original piece published at on 4.11.17.

The title phrase of this essay has been on my mind for some time—so much on my mind that a little over a year ago my wife and I started a small non-profit called 4X4 for Wild, whose mission is to create pollinator habitat in urban/suburban landscapes. This essay is about cultivating wildness in our gardens and landscapes and, extending the concept, also about cultivating wildness of human spirit.

The cold blast at the end of last week notwithstanding, Spring is here. Many of us are avid gardeners, and Spring is bliss for us—our perennials are bursting through the layer of winter mulch, the fruit trees and blueberry shrubs are flowering, and we’ll soon set out our heirloom tomato and pepper plants. Our summer gardens will be set out in orderly tilled rows, our tomatoes caged, perhaps with a couple of rows of sunflowers. I’ll admit that this is an appealing image, the order, linearity, and neatness of it all. But I want to turn our attention to the concept of cultivating wildness, of allowing some “weeds” to grow up around our neat garden areas, of encouraging some natural processes to take place and just standing back to watch nature do her thing.

There’s a wonderful children’s book about allowing nature to creep back into our lawns. Written by Henry Cole and published in 2007, On Meadowview Street is a heart-warming story about a little girl who persuades first her father, and then, through her great example, her entire neighborhood, to allow her lawn to revert to a wild habitat area for birds, butterflies, bees, and amphibians. She facilitates the process by planting a few native trees and shrubs, and then installing a small pond and a nesting box, but she also assists by standing back and watching as wildflowers begin to appear and outcompete the non-native grasses originally planted in her lawn. Little Caroline is cultivating wildness.

There are many ways to cultivate wildness around our homes. We can follow Caroline’s lead and facilitate the transition of our manicured lawns to habitat havens filled with native trees, shrubs, and flowering herbaceous plants. There are many excellent resources for those so inclined, including detailed planting guides; Asheville’s Bee City USA and the Xerces Society have excellent resources on their webpages. There are also very simple steps a humble gardener can take to provide habitat for a wide variety of animals, such as piling plant stubble in a corner of the garden, leaving a layer of leaves and other organic material on gardens year-round, and leaving the hollow stems from annual flowers in our garden as potential nesting sites for solitary bees.

I have long thought about cultivating wildness in a somewhat different (but related) context. In these most uncertain times of geopolitical upheaval and uncertainty, and with a constant bombardment of images, messages, and information, when we know what the weather will be like every hour, there has perhaps never been a better time for some wildness of the human spirit.

And we can cultivate it, seeking wild experiences in the outdoors in infinite ways. One of my favorite ways to cultivate wildness is to take a few chances while fishing the headwater streams in our area. I was introduced to Tenkara fly fishing two summers ago, and I have become a changed person. On several occasions last summer I got a little wild, took a slight turn off-trail, did some bushwhacking, and ended up in the Nirvana of native brook trout fishing in seldom-fished waters.

On one such occasion, I was on an overnighter with a few friends in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had thrown my Tenkara rod into my pack, just in case, but I did not plan to fish much. I caught a couple of brookies on our five-mile or so hike to our backcountry site, just by fishing just off the trail in a few pools. But when we got to our campsite, I heard the roar of tumbling mountain-stream water a few hundred yards away. I told the guys that I was going to sneak down the trail a bit to see if I could gain access to the stream, but I had on my camp shoes—flip flops—and it took a half hour or so before I could find anything close to an access point. Even then, I had to scale a downed hemlock at a 70-degree angle, ripping my shorts almost off my body, and obtaining several abrasions.

I looked back up the steep incline to the trail, stepped in the water, and it hit me immediately that I was in prime fishing waters. The stream was choked in places with rhododendron, dead hemlocks, and mountain laurel, but the fishing was incredible. I caught about a dozen brookies, all of them good-sized, in just over an hour. It was dusk and I wanted to get back to camp before dark, so I crawled (literally) out of the stream and up a very steep embankment, flip-flopped through a tangle of laurel and wood nettles, and found the trail. When I got back to camp, one of my friends said to me, “The smile on your face says it all.”

One of my favorite authors is the curmudgeon Edward Abbey, who wrote this in his Desert Solitaire introduction: “Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees… When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”

The image and practice of crawling on hands and knees, obtaining a few abrasions and drawing blood, have stuck with me for years. It’s not that I seek to bleed, of course, or to leap over rattlesnakes during my outings (that happened once last summer on a bushwhacking fishing expedition), but that my soul needs some wildness every now and then. When cultivating wildness, whether in the garden or during our outdoor adventures, we must allow for uncertainty, and for natural processes to take over. We may end up with a few weeds, or we may end up with a bloody scratch or two, but we’ll all be better off.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Climate Change: Don't Blame Trump; Look in the Mirror

This was an original piece published for Blue Ridge Outdoors on April 4, 2017.

It’s been a tough week for environmentalists, or anyone who cares at all about the environment and living in a world with a stable climate. President Trump unleashed a new round of attacks on regulatory efforts to reverse the certain global warming trends we are witnessing at this very moment. His sweeping executive orders either killed or begin procedures to negate every major climate change policy put in place under President Obama. It was tough to even read the newspapers.

I’ll admit to suffering a bit of despair this week. I’m angry, sad, disappointed, stunned. But here’s the thing: We can’t blame President Trump for this mess; this is on us, the ordinary citizens of the United States. It’s our fault. We have not created the political will to advance the cause for reducing emissions to halt global warming.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) does excellent work to gauge the opinions of Americans about climate change. Recent studies report that 70% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and most us believe that the changes are primarily human-caused. We believe the science and we can see what’s happening, yet most of us don’t take concrete actions to do anything about the problem. We think of it as affecting someone else, or affecting people in the distant future.

A map created by The New York Times, using data from YPCCC, shows that in many regions of the country, Americans do not believe that climate change will affect them personally. In the states from Maryland to Georgia, almost every congressional district shows less than 50% of the people believe that they will be personally effected by global warming. However, in Western North Carolina, we just experienced a brutal late Fall of extreme drought, which led to forest fires burning 45,000 acres of national forest land being burned, costing the U.S. Forest Service almost $37 million. (It is true that almost all of the fires were set either purposefully or accidentally by people, but the conditions that led to the severity of the fires were present because of the drought.) In addition, areas on the coast are seeing more incidences of “sunny day flooding,” and scientists contend that climate change is leading to more frequent and bigger floods.

My wife handed me this quotation the other day, ascribed to environmentalist Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” I believe Mr. Swan nailed it, and I am at least as guilty as the next person. I’ve known for years about the overwhelming scientific consensus of increasing global surface and ocean temperatures on Earth, and that scientists conclude that human activity is causing it, mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. But for years I did not take a single action to affect change. I did not write or call my members of Congress requesting that they act on climate change, and I did no public outreach, such as writing letters to the editor of local newspapers. Like millions of other Americans, I just assumed that someone else was taking care of this—Congress, President Obama, the EPA, someone.
There has been some progress, most notably the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015, which went into effect on November 4, 2016. The contribution of the United States was to be the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut CO2 emissions from power plants by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. Last week, President Trump began the process to undo the Clean Power Plan, which never went into effect under President Obama, having been held up in courts until now. The problem with using executive power to create policy is that these policies can be relatively easily undone. What we need is bipartisan legislation, which, on the surface, seems terribly unlikely.

It is on this point that I turn optimistic (some could say naïve). There is some momentum on this issue, as some Republicans in Congress have joined the cause for action on climate change. Notably, we have a 34-member Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, made up of 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans, and a House resolution was signed recently by House Republicans requesting conservative action to address climate change. In February of this year, the conservative Climate Leadership Council, led by Republican stalwarts George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Henry Paulson, et. al, issued a proposal to place a fee on carbon, which would lead to reduced carbon emissions over time, transitioning us towards a low-carbon future with renewable energy.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) also advocates for a revenue-neutral, carbon fee and dividend (CF&D) program, whereby fossil fuel companies pay a fee for the carbon they extract, and then all the revenues collected are returned to American households. I first attended a CCL meeting in December 2015, and I was initially lukewarm on the proposal. After all, President Obama had this climate change thing all taken care of with the Clean Power Plan, I thought. But I now see that a bipartisan CF&D may be America’s only hope to be a positive force, as the rest of the world works towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning towards renewable energy systems and a stable climate.

Now back to you and me—this is where we can play a part. CCL’s tag line is “creating political will for a livable future.” CCL, a non-profit advocacy group, works to create political will through grassroots efforts, such as writing letters to the editor to all newspapers in the country, actively lobbying every member of Congress (Democrat, Independent, or Republican), and public outreach. We must create political will. After all, as CCL Executive Director Mark Reynolds puts it, “Politicians do not create political will; they respond to it.”

Here are some concrete steps you can take to create political will:

·      You can simply start talking about climate change with your peers. A YPCCC study shows that only about a third of Americans talk about climate change on a frequent basis.
·      You can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, which can be as simple as stating that you support action on climate change, or are concerned about it.
·      You can write or call your three Members of Congress and request that they take action. (CCL makes this easy; click here to write a personal email to your representatives in just a couple of minutes, or to find phone numbers to call.)
·      You can join thousands of other Americans in Washington, DC for the Peoples’ Climate Movement march on April 29.

Climate change is affecting all of us now, and scientists tell us that it will get much worse. But we have time if we act now. We can’t assume that someone else is taking care of this, because they aren’t. Join thousands of other ordinary citizens to create the political will for positive action, starting today. Let us together preserve all that is precious to each of us for now and for future generations.