No joke: Climate change humanized

An economist and a couple of environmentalists walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”

Well, in the case of the economist — yes. That would be Yoram Bauman of Seattle, a self-described stand-up economist who uses humor along with social science to approach the serious subject of climate change. He calls himself “the world’s first and only stand-up economist.”

“I only have one thing going for me: I have low expectations,” Bauman said Monday in a phone interview from his Seattle home. “I’m a supply-side economist. I stand up and let the jokes trickle down.”

On Wednesday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, Bauman did a talk, “What’s So Funny About Climate Change?” Today he gives the same talk at 6 p.m. at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna. With the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, or CCL, Bauman visited Alaska as part of the Alaska Big Dividend Tour, a program to pitch a revenue-neutral carbon fee with the idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through economic incentives. Cook Inletkeeper and the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society sponsored the lower Kenai Peninsula visit of the Alaska’s Big Dividend Tour.

“We’ve been amazed by the staggering silence on climate change in Alaska for some time,” said Inletkeeper director Bob Shavelson. “We’ve been looking for ways to stimulate discussion.”

On Tuesday, George Donart, the Alaska coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and Tamara Staton, Pacific Northwest regional coordinator, also gave a talk to the Rotary Club of Homer Downtown. Tuesday morning, the Homer News met with Donart to learn about the lobby group’s carbon-fee incentive program.

With a bachelor of arts in mathematics from Reed College, Portland, Ore., and a doctorate in economics from the University of Washington, Seattle, Bauman, 43, has the economics background to be a wise guy. He got started in stand-up comedy after writing an economics parody that wound up being published in a science humor journal, The Annals of Improbable Research. He then presented his paper as part of a humor session at the 2004 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and enjoyed comedy so much he eventually went full time.

“It’s a way to humanize it a little bit,” Bauman said. “Some of the jokes show economics has a reputation problem.”

So what is so funny about an environmental issue that many scientists say can lead to ocean acidification, coastal erosion, warming oceans, rising sea levels, melting permafrost, severe storms and social upheaval?

“What’s funny about climate change is it doesn’t have to be such a divisive issue,” Bauman said. “There’s a pretty great solution out there than can appeal to people across the political spectrum.”

Donart is the straight man to Bauman’s act. A 65-year-old commercial fisherman from Anchorage, he wears a button that says, “Ask me about carbon fee.” Donart has been volunteering for Citizens’ Climate Lobby for about six years. Its focus is on promoting the carbon-fee approach to reducing emissions. CCL takes a nonpartisan, informative approach “by building relationships with our members of Congress and understanding that’s how we’re going to get there,” Donart said. “It’s a concrete solution to climate change.”

The carbon fee plan works like this:

• Industries that emit greenhouse gases pay a per-ton carbon fee at the point the product enters the economy — when coal gets shipped out of a mine, for example, or gas enters a pipeline. The amount of carbon is determined through chemical analysis of the product. Initially the per-ton amount would start low and increase over time to give industries incentives to decrease emissions. The fee would start at $15 a ton. As an excise fee, it then gets passed on to the consumer. The carbon fee of a gallon of gas would be about 15 cents, for example.

• The federal government collects the fee and then distributes it as a dividend. Donart said Alaskans understand how that works: we get an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. Other than a small administrative cost, the carbon fees go back to citizens on a per-person basis. Each adult gets one share and a child — up to two children in a household — gets a half share.

Because the carbon fee gets collected on the basis of how much a consumer uses carbon-emitting products, but the dividend gets paid per-person, it creates an incentive to reduce carbon emissions.

For example, if Joe buys 50 gallons of gas a month, he pays $7.50 in carbon fees. If Fred buys 100 gallons of gas, he pays $15, with $22.50 total collected. Divided equally per-person, each gets half of the fees collected, or $11.25 each. Because Joe used less gas, he comes out ahead.

Donart said studies show about 55 to 65 percent of dividend recipients would either come out ahead or break even. The carbon fee plan also would lead to 2.75 million more jobs and prevent 250,000 premature deaths from illnesses like asthma and heart disease.

“This is Economics 101, putting a price on an externality, something you don’t want,” he said, “It’s all about changing behavior.”

There’s a third part to the carbon fee proposal, what Donart called a border carbon adjustment. That’s to keep companies from benefitting that move factories to countries not working to reduce emissions. The plan creates a carbon club, Donart said.

If a country reduces carbon emissions, they’re in the club and can trade back and forth without penalty. If a company isn’t in the carbon club, products imported into the United States or other carbon club countries pay an extra duty.

A carbon fee plan is similar to a carbon tax, except the government doesn’t keep the money. That’s the revenue neutrality part of it, something that makes it attractive to small-government advocates. It’s also less bureaucratic than cap-and-trade, where the government sets caps on emissions and cleaner industries can sell carbon allowances to dirtier companies.

British Columbia, Canada, has a variation of the carbon fee model. The government collects carbon fees, but rather than distribute the money as dividends, gives it back in reduced taxes. Donart said some U.S. states are exploring their own versions of carbon fees.

With President Donald Trump taking office, and his stated opposition to climate change as a problem, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby isn’t deterred. Right after the election, they formed Team Trump to engage with the new administration, Donart said.

Most of their approach has been in Congress. Donart said representatives and senators and their staffs have generally been receptive to the idea, especially Alaska’s delegation. In the past four years since he’s been going to Washington, D.C., to lobby, Donart said interest has grown from a staff member listening to senior staff members and even representatives and senators hearing their pitch. Discussions went from “don’t talk about it” to “that might work.”

“Climate’s not going away. We aren’t either,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to get this passed.”

For more information on the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and its carbon-fee proposal, visit citizensclimatelobby.org.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

Citzens’ Climate Lobby Alaska state coordinator George Donart of Anchorage.

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