Camila Thorndike founded Our Climate (then Oregon Climate) in 2013 and was our Executive Director until 2016. Camila recently served as the DC Campaign Director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, where she led efforts to successfully pass the country's most ambitious renewable energy standard.
Oregon my Oregon! I didn’t realize how much I missed you while giving my all to Clean Energy DC. Friends like you all are hard to find, as are opportunities to make such a difference for our world.
After spending the past week lobbying with our Oregon Fellows for the Clean Energy Jobs (CEJ) bill, I want to offer reflections from our 15+ meetings and Carbon Reduction Committee hearing. Thanks to advocates’ persistence and the new Democratic supermajority, the Capitol building is absolutely transformed since the days I set up camp there and co-founded Our Climate from 2013-16. From the Senate President’s office on down, every legislator affirmed that passing the cap and invest bill was a top priority this session. What a welcome change since those early days of begging for action!
The cap and invest bill drops tonight. It won’t be perfect. It won’t make everybody happy. It also will not be the exact bill that ultimately passes—because our side will be working hard for improvements, just as the other works hard to crater it. So let’s push hard to strengthen the bill, because without our pushing, the laws of political gravity will roll it downhill in the polluters’ favor.
Our Climate lobbying for carbon pricing policy in 2013 (left), Our student Fellows with Senator Dembrow in January 2019 (right)
How do we move forward from here? There’s plenty of technical terrain to cover in the coming days and weeks. There will be more discussion on the specific benefits and percentages of offsets, how to link to other states and provinces, and on preventing shady deals for megapolluters like Jordan Cove LNG (which, thanks to great organizing in Southern Oregon, looks unlikely). But for now I just want to focus on the human landscape—because without trust and goodwill, none of those thorny issues can be addressed.
When the political heat rises, I know no better friends to our collective success than respect, kindness, and mutual benefit of the doubt. It’s really simple. Nothing thrills the polluters as much as intra-community infighting—especially at this point in the game, when we need to possess more unanimous strength and focus than ever before.
So when disagreements inevitably arise over just what element of the policy should change and by how much, let’s strategically flank each other as needed, and remember that it’s a helluva long fight: this bill was never the be-all end-all. (That tired straw man argument against carbon pricing is due for retirement.) Let’s remember that those of us who take action on any of these issues are in the teeny tiny and mostly-volunteer minority, both in Oregon and nationwide. We are fighting the most entrenched and well-heeled toxic adversary in the history of the planet. They will exploit our every difference, and in ways that we may not even realize are engineered behind the scenes. Let’s make their job difficult for this bill and every one to follow.
Why am I even getting into this? During our rounds of the Capitol, our team met with several pro-climate justice legislators whom progressives have worked hard to elect. They worry that incipient bill opposition from the far left is dangerously misguided. While I generally think it’s worse to pass crap policy just to alleviate political pressure, this policy is not that, and opposition to it—at this point in time—is neither politically practical nor morally defensible.
Our Climate Youth present Governor Kate Brown with student petitions in favor of carbon pricing in 2016 (left), Camila Thorndike and friend meet with Representative Pam March of Camila's hometown Ashland, OR (right)
If you spend time in Salem, you’ll know that the legislature IS going to cap carbon. The degree to which this sinks in as a REALLY BIG DEAL generally correlates to how long you’ve been working on proactive policy in a politically heterogeneous landscape.* In other words, if you’ve been in the trenches, you’re pumped to get here.
The relevant question for cap and invest is whether the design will make Oregon proud. And the only way to get there is fighting FOR improvements, not against the whole idea—unless it’s truly, egregiously, hopelessly beyond salvage—because not one of those legislators has the time, power, or drive to wholesale swap it out for a different policy. Opposing the cap bill leaves us with nothing, which helps no one.**
And in the context of this moment, having nothing after all these years of work will be infinitely worse than having something that needs fixing. It will show that our movement is a mess and climate is not worth all the time and effort for legislators with goods to deliver for reelection. More to the point, if we win something now, we can always trade up down the road. Our negotiating position to do so—on, say, a Green New Deal—will be as strong as what we win now.
To be sure, I don’t always subscribe to the axiom that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” because sometimes letting pressure build for a stronger policy is the wise approach. It’s just not the case for Oregon’s CEJ circa February 2019. Right now, the polluters are using Coal to Clean and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) as leverage for their own aims. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply to us?
Climate change is a cascade of physical devastation and our political response must be rooted in the practical urgency of now. A new outline of policy ideas, however exciting, is no substitute for a fully written bill with the backing of top brass. This is especially true of a bill vetted through hundreds of hours of testimony, untold hours of volunteer fieldwork, countless stakeholder workshops, and years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to land on the desk of leadership in both chambers and sit on the verge of passage.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inspires us with a “yes, and” spirit to these questions. Many in the Green New Deal movement at the federal level believe that equitable and bold carbon pricing is a necessary part of the solution. They think it would have been wise to have passed a steadily rising price on carbon decades ago, and that after such delay we need now need the whole kitchen sink. But they do not reflexively pose policy ideas against each other as an “either or,” and neither should we. ***
Look, in the early days of shaping which direction Oregon would go, when a big loud debate on best design was a necessary and healthy thing to have, I fought as hard as anyone for the version I believed in. (And for the record, I still think a carbon fee and dividend would be the most transparent, equitable, durable and inspiring solution.) But at this point, unless I’d successfully abolished the “Taxpayers Bill of Rights” that prevents new taxes without a 2/3rds majority vote; unless I’d mounted an initiative to do away with the Highway Trust Fund requirements for revenues raised on transportation fuels; unless I’d mounted a revolution for economic justice in Oregon and nonstop-organized my philosophy into a political tsunami of support in every District, I know that at this point my options are limited. I also know that our efforts contributed to this moment, as has every climate and justice advocate in the state, if only by moving the issue up on the priority list. This is our shared moment.
All of this is why I believe my energy is best spent helping improve and pass the very best version of a bill that is live, and then scanning the landscape for more policy windows. Why would I would be so glad to see a cap and invest pass, first? Not because I’m just tired of the whole issue (as many are), or because I think it’s the raddest policy ever, but because I now fully understand how hard it is to get a body politic to say yes to anything new—let alone a statewide cap on pollution. Which is a BFD (see above).
Senator Cliff Bentz and the Fellows work together to understand aspects of the CEJ policy
My time in the Capitol with Our Climate Fellows this week was truly inspiring. It made me hopeful. Our champion lawmakers see light at the end of the tunnel on this particular fight. New lawmakers are stoked by the prospects for landmark change. And old foes seem, well, less foe-ish.
I used to end every meeting with now Senator Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) exasperated by “yes but” denialism (“yes we have a problem, but we can’t take this action...”). This time, our crew dropped by unannounced, and he engaged us in a friendly and productive 45 minute whiteboard diagramming session. Bentz wanted to understand how Pacificorp would justify skirting payment for their share of allowances. He seemed reassured that free allowances do not compromise the integrity of the carbon cap as an exemption would. In that moment, it felt like we were in an alternate universe—in the very best of ways.
Now let’s go codify that alternate universe into statute. I hope our movement and our legislature will make Oregon proud. It will take all of us, honoring the hard work it has taken to get this far, and treating each other with the respect and care we feel for our planet.
In the words of Gary Snyder:
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
* By proactive policy, I mean trying to affirmatively change the economics or political economy of a system. This is a different kind of project than blocking that system’s worst manifestations, like an oil pipeline. It is widely recognized that it’s harder to rally people to “yes” on a complex policy than to “no” on a destructive project. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the former abstract and demands a steep learning curve, more often than not it also offers only diffuse benefits across constituencies and time. Proactive and economy-wide policy also presents infinite opportunities for likely allies to diverge along the fault lines of policy details. The “no” type of campaigns, on the other hand, present an immediate threat of physical damage that awakens both the individual and collective imagination, and there is a clear rubric of success (it gets built, or not) from which people can more easily self-educate and self-organize.
** Least of all the most unjustly screwed-over communities in the U.S. and around the world who are counting on politically privileged states like Oregon to take action.
*** See E&E News: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060118143