A new North Star for climate change activists?

child and windmill

A new North Star for climate change activists?

By Alex Counts

It began with a simple question, posed five years ago by Citizen’s Climate Lobby activist and donor Peter Fiekowsky to CCL’s CEO.

“So, what’s our end-game, Mark?”

“A revenue-neutral carbon fee, naturally.”

“But isn’t that just a means to an end,” Peter asked in response.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Mark Reynolds responded.

“It seems to me that we should define the desired outcome that a carbon fee would contribute to.”


Peter Fiekowsky

Demonstrating the open management style that has endeared Mark to so many in this organization, he responded, “Yes, Peter – and I’d like to put you in charge of doing that.”

Today, Peter is working within CCL, and independently, through his visionary Healthy Climate Project, to articulate what it will take to go beyond the goal of keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and target a zero degree increase – which is to say no increase – instead.

As a new board member of Citizens’ Climate Eduction (CCL’s sister organization), I asked Peter, whom I have known for years through his support of many causes that both of us have been involved in, what it would take to do this, and even whether it was possible.

I understand enough about the subject to know that even reaching zero net carbon emissions, as has been called for by Grameen Bank founder and Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, would not ensure a truly healthy climate.

“It would take several elements. First, complete the fossil fuel transition, which is at the core of CCL’s agenda now. In addition, we need to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, so we return to 350 PPM [parts per million].”

I asked if the technologies exist to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. His response was encouraging: there are many proven solutions to do so, and directed me to a source that detailed ten of the most promising approaches. And if a focused R&D effort was undertaken, the number of solutions would grow and the cost to implement them would likely drop.

However, most climate scientists Peter has spoken to dismiss this vision as politically unattainable, and have declined to publicly endorse it.   Perhaps they have not come to terms with how quickly political realities can change, as has happened to a startling degree in the United States over the last decade with regard to decriminalization of marijuana, LGBT rights, and the death penalty.

I have to admire the boldness of Peter’s effort to define a North Star that is grounded not in what we think is possible today, but rather in what we need, what we must pass on to future generations, and what appears to be technically feasible.

I asked Peter what the next step is in realizing the vision of his organization, the Healthy Climate Project. He had a ready answer: a big push to build grassroots and media support for President Obama, during his final months in office, to declare the long-term goal of restoring a healthy climate with zero-degrees warming. His address to the U.N. General Assembly in September would be a natural opportunity for him to do so, and would immediately encourage government agencies to provide funding to related R&D efforts.

Throughout history, the most ambitious advocacy campaigns have pushed the thinking of more incrementalist approaches, and they have influenced political calculations and the public’s sense of what is possible. Peter is following in this proud and powerful tradition even as he rolls up his sleeves to advance CCL’s goal of passing a refundable carbon fee in the next Congress.

Future generations may have Peter to thank for what must at times feel like a lonely effort. In the meantime, he is cranking out letters to the editor calling on President Obama to take a bold step in a few weeks. I can’t think of a reason not to join him. Too much is at stake, especially now that I can see, however dimly, a new north star on the horizon.

Alex Counts
Alex Counts, the President of the American India Foundation and the Founder of Grameen Foundation, was a member of the board of directors of Citizen's Climate Education. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Bangladesh in 1988-89 and today serves as a Senior Alumni Ambassador for the Fulbright program.