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Volunteer Spotlight: Peter Joseph

Peter Joseph, George Shultz, Citizens' Climate Lobby

Peter Joseph (right) and Steve Hams (left) wished former Secretary of State George Shultz a happy 97th birthday this past December.

Volunteer Spotlight: Peter Joseph

By Flannery Winchester

At the helm of CCL’s Marin County chapter in California is Peter Joseph, M.D. He has led the Marin County group since 2011 and serves as liaison to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), as well as to Secretaries Shultz and Chu. After retiring from a 35-year career as an emergency physician, Peter says, “Climate activism has become my consuming passion, as satisfying as treating people in the ER and far less frenetic. I get to use all my skills—making quick connections with people, assessing complex information and acting decisively. Since climate change is the mother of all emergencies, working on it engages all facets of my being: intellectually, professionally and spiritually.”

In today’s post, Peter shares his journey to CCL, his efforts promoting CF&D through the MIT CoLab contests, and what keeps him motivated to do this important work.

How did you get connected with CCL?

I first got involved with climate change advocacy after seeing An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. When I heard that Mr. Gore would train ordinary people to present his lecture, I made sure to get in. I think one reason I was accepted was that, as an emergency physician deeply involved with my hospital’s successful trauma center development, Mr. Gore felt grateful on account of his young son’s life having been saved in one after being struck by a car. On the reception line at the Grand Ole Opry in early January 2007, he recalled my name and sincerely thanked me.

It took another nine months of study before I began giving talks on climate change as I feared being asked a question I couldn’t answer. But something was missing from the talk. After describing the devastating impacts that lay ahead, people would ask “But what can I do?” All I had for them was Mr. Gore’s message about personal actions: drive less, take the bus, buy a Prius, install those expensive squiggly lightbulbs, eat less meat, take shorter showers, shop at the farmers’ market—all worthy activities. But it felt like a cruel cognitive dissonance since these personal actions are nowhere near a match for the problem. We weren’t talking about solutions matching the scale of the problem, namely, cheap fossil fuels whose damages weren’t reflected in their price.

peter joseph citizens climate lobby

Peter’s civil disobedience arrest at The White House in August 2011

In the summer of 2011, outraged over the Canadian tar sands ecocide, I decided to participate in the White House civil disobedience against the Keystone XL pipeline organized by Bill McKibben. Afterwards, I was glad to have done it, but realized that it was symbolic—important, yes, but it wasn’t going to stop the exploitation. For that to happen, tar sands oil needed to be made less profitable. Money talks.

Shortly after returning from DC, a friend introduced me to CCL, suggesting I take over the Marin chapter, which had about five people. As I grasped the power of CCL’s message, I realized that it was close to a magic bullet: harness the power of money and markets to rectify the market failure that externalizes the negative impacts of climate damages from the price of the fuel. It seemed a no-brainer, a necessity for every other type of action to succeed, and it was more than symbolic. Again, money talks.

The marriage of Al Gore’s message, “the-sky-really-is-falling” with the hopeful CCL message, “get-the money-right-and-we-might-have-a-chance” is both effective and true. It allows an audience to take in the bad news because it relieves individuals of the burden of having to solve the problem themselves. CCL democratizes the solution by shifting the focus to the entire economy, in which we all participate. The Carbon Fee and Dividend is like the key enzyme at the top of a complex chemical reaction, without which the downstream processes can’t happen. it’s hard to imagine success in everything else people are trying to do about climate without the help of the economy itself. CCL holds the missing ingredient: follow the money.

What did you like about CCL?

When I first got involved, CCL was a young, upstart, grassroots volunteer organization with almost no staff, which valued every person who came along with serious intent. That remains true today. CCL cultivates and motivates its volunteers, unlike many top-down organizations that ask only for clicks and cash. Its mission to empower individuals is fundamental to its success and rapid growth and is embodied by all the staff, thanks to wise and thoughtful leadership. CCL is welcoming, warm, loving and—incredibly—fun.

In addition, CCL’s message has never been partisan, strident or angry. Its core proposition is understandable, reasonable, and practical. Its focus on building respectful relationships speaks to the best in people instead of the worst, and CCL cultivates the creativity of its members, keeping them engaged. The depth and breadth of its volunteer force continues to amaze me. CCL is a fantastic community. Watching and helping it grow and differentiate, like my grandkids, has been extremely satisfying.

Tell me about your main efforts or projects within CCL.

After several years of involvement, I learned of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence Climate CoLab contests in March 2014. One contest was for how best to achieve a US carbon price. I immediately dove in, soon realizing that I was in over my head. Fortunately, I met Gary Horvitz, a retired physical therapist who knew more about economics than I. We spent an intense 6 months writing a contest entry called “The Little Engine That Could: Revenue Neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend,” largely based on the new REMI report. It won the 2014 Popular Choice award. The following year, we updated, resubmitted and again won the popular choice and Judges’ special commendation awards.

peter joseph citizens' climate lobby

(L-R) Joe Robertson, Gary Horvitz and Peter Joseph at an MIT conference in 2014

This year, at their invitation, I’ve submitted a fresh proposal based on the two previous ones, current data and CCL’s progress. This time I’ve had great help from my mentor, Bob Archer, whose Yale economics degree and long career with USAID in energy sector reform has been invaluable, and Noel Smyth, whose astute feedback from his finance background has greatly contributed to the proposal. (Read their impressive bios at the end of our proposal.)

With 90,000 supporters, CCL can again win the popular choice award by a long shot. You can vote for it by clicking VOTE, then register in the CoLab community and go back to VOTE. The voting ends on January 15.

I’ve also recruited a few members of our advisory panel—Dan Kammen, whom I met when he spoke at my son’s high school; former US Department of State and Treasury Secretary George Shultz, to whom I was introduced by a friend, a kitchen designer working with his wife; and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whom I met at a Commonwealth Club of San Francisco award ceremony. Sec. Chu spoke at last year’s NorCal regional conference, and Sec. Shultz says, “I really like what you’re doing.” He’s offered to help us reach out to Climate Leadership Council members.

I plan to continue exploring the expansion of our advisory board, as there are many outstanding leaders whose endorsement would open doors.

What keeps you motivated to do this work?

I have three grown sons and three innocent grandchildren whose lives are at risk. ER docs are trained to stay cool and act swiftly, decisively and sometimes aggressively in desperate situations. Climate change is one of them. I always wanted to become a doctor, like my grandfather, father, uncles and cousins, in order to help relieve suffering and to use technology for human betterment. I want our civilization to continue its progress, not to self-destruct. I’m sure that everyone reading this understands that passively watching the desecration of our beautiful world and putting our civilization at risk, without intervening personally, is simply intolerable. And CCL understands the most effective tool in the tool kit: harnessing the power of money and markets to pull humanity out of the ditch we’ve dug on our way to prosperity.

Anything else we should know about you?

Yes. My father fled Nazi Germany in 1933 at the tender age of 20 because his father, a prominent Berlin physician who fought in the trenches and had ties to the former Weimar government, received a warning that he was about to be arrested by the Gestapo. I’m alive today because they heeded those warnings, at great personal loss and distress. Many who disregarded them suffered the worst consequences. Must that lesson be repeated on a planetary scale, or shall we finally learn to trust the warnings that our instruments and experts are screaming at us? Willful ignorance and passive behavior are not acceptable.

Got a suggestion for our Volunteer Spotlight series? Send the name, chapter and some brief info about the volunteer to Flannery Winchester at flannery @

Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.