Bonus Episode: Climate Stories [Full Transcript]

The "why" behind our guests' work

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In this special episode, Casey guides us through the stories of our conservative and progressive guests who are advocating for climate action. We'll hear about the power of science, family, and faith to change hearts and minds. Featuring former Congressman Bob Inglis (RepublicEN.org), Kiera O'Brien (Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends), former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, Jerry Taylor (Niskanen Center), Saya Ameli Hajebi (Sunrise Movement), and Keya Chatterjee (US Climate Action Network).


Casey: Welcome to Pricing Nature—I’m Casey Pickett. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing from folks across the ideological spectrum about where they stand on carbon pricing policy, and why. We’d like to get to know these guests a little better, before we get to work unpacking their policy stances. Today, we’ll focus on their stories -- about how they came to care about climate change. These are stories of science, stories of faith, stories of humility, stories of home… Thanks for joining us for this special episode of Pricing Nature. We hope you enjoy.

Bob Inglis: So I’m Bob Inglis...

Casey: Bob Inglis is a former congressman from South Carolina. He served from 1993-1999 and then again from 2005-2011, for the Greenville-Spartanburg area. Today, he’s Executive Director of RepublicEN.org, a conservative climate advocacy group:

Bob Inglis: ...Aaaand I guess I should add that I was six years in Congress saying that climate change is nonsense… 

Casey: Bob shared with us his story of how he came to care about climate change… It happened in three parts:

Bob Inglis: Had the opportunity to run for the same seat again in 2004. That year, my son came to me as he was voting for the first time having just turned 18… and he said to me, Dad, I’ll vote for ya. But you are going to clean up your act on the environment. And so that was the first step of a three-step metamorphosis. His four sisters agreed, his mother agreed, this is a new constituency, you know, these people can change the locks on the doors to your house, so you need to respond to that constituency. 

So that was step one… and by the way, my son was going to vote for me no matter what, right? I mean, it wasn't in his economic interest to vote against me. You can lose by one vote. And he knew that we were literally mortgaging the farmette that we live on in order to run for Congress again. So he was gonna vote for me no matter what. I think he was really saying “Dad, I love you. You can be better than you were before. So how about be relevant to my future and your four daughters’ futures?” And so, that was step one. 

Step two was going to Antarctica with the science committee, the house science committee, and seeing the evidence in the ice core drillings. 

Casey: Ice core drillings are long tubes of ice glaciologists collect from polar ice sheets, ice caps, and mountain glaciers -- they can analyze these tubes of ice to understand how Earth’s air temperature and atmospheric composition have changed over hundreds of thousands of years. You can read more about these natural time capsules on our website. Back to you, Bob:

Bob Inglis: And then step three was another science committee trip and something of a spiritual awakening, which seems unlikely on a godless science committee trip, because we all know that all scientists are godless, right? Well apparently not, because this Aussie climate scientist was showing me, as we were snorkeling together, the glories of the great barrier reef, and I could see that he was worshiping God in what he was showing me. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” And so Scott, Scott Heron, was preaching the gospel. You could see it in his eyes. It was written all over his face. In his excitement about the creator behind that creation he was showing me.

So later we had a chance to talk, and he told me about conservation changes he was making in his life in order to love God and love people. And, you know, Scott rides his bike to work, does without air conditioning, as much as possible, in Townsville Australia, a pretty hot place... hangs his family's clothes out on the line all to consciously love people coming after us.

So I got right inspired. I wanted to be like Scott who's now become a very dear friend, loving God and loving people. So I came home and introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009. That’s a revenue neutral, border adjustable, carbon tax. Note to self, probably not a good idea to introduce a carbon tax in the midst of the Great Recession when you represent perhaps the most conservative district in the most conservative state in America. It didn’t go well. After 12 years in Congress, in a Republican runoff, I got 29% of the vote, and the other guy got the other 71% of the vote. So a rather spectacular face plant, I should say.

Casey: The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act was Bob Inglis’ own carbon pricing proposal in Congress. We’ll hear more about it in our next episode, the Conservative Case for Carbon Pricing.

Casey: For Bob Inglis, it took a mix of family, science, and faith to bring him around on climate action. He saw the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, on the other side of the world. But for some, the effects of climate change are visible in their own backyard… 

Keira O’Brien is a young Alaskan conservative who co-founded Students For Carbon Dividends, or S4CD. Students for Carbon Dividends mobilizes young people across the political spectrum in favor of carbon tax policy that returns dividends directly to taxpayers. Keira went on to found Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends. She told us the story of her own climate revelation:

Keira O’Brien: I grew up outdoors, like hunting, fishing, hiking and all that, and I grew up on the water on an Island. So definitely it is easy to notice when something is off and something is definitely off. The climate is changing, humans are contributing, and it is definitely a large concern for me.

One of the things that has stuck with me is the summer before I left for college, I remember being outside, looking at the water, and the water had turned this bright Caribbean blue, like the ocean in Alaska is usually like a steel gray. But this particular, like it was about a week, it was Caribbean blue, because of an algal bloom, because it had been so warm recently. And that ended up creating a lot of problems for our ecosystem there. Fishing is a huge industry where I'm from and it really threw off the balance... and also just looked absolutely wrong.”

Casey: Seeing the effects of climate change close to home can be a potent motivator. And Keira is not the only conservative we spoke to who came to this issue out of concern for their community. Former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who we heard from last episode, says he took action on climate change because of his vulnerable constituents, the people of South Florida. 

Carlos Curbelo: I'll say growing up in South Florida in the 80s and 90s, really most of us who grew up here have a pretty healthy evolved environmental conscience. So we live between the ocean and the Everglades here. So from the time you're in third and fourth grade, you're already learning about this unique ecosystem, especially the Everglades. And Everglades restoration for example is a bipartisan and, just more than bipartisan, it's a consensus issue in the state of Florida.

Casey: As a Floridian, the environment was always on Congressman Curbelo’s radar. Support for the Everglades is non-partisan in Florida… but Climate Change, as we’ve seen, carries different political baggage. Much as with Bob Inglis, scientists were able to raise Congressman Curbelo’s level of concern...

Carlos Curbelo: So I didn't arrive in Congress ignorant or not caring about the issue, but at the same time, it wasn’t- I never thought it would be what I dedicated most of my time to. And it was not something that drove me to run. However, early during my time in Congress, in 2015, I had a meeting with NOAA scientists. They came to my office, that's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they showed me a very clear picture of what could happen to my part of the world, the district I represented, if we didn't take global warming and greenhouse gas emissions seriously. And it was at that point where I realized, okay, this is not just an issue that I have to care about. This is an issue that I have to lead on. And I started recruiting fellow house Republicans. There were 247 of us at the time. It was the largest Republican majority since the 1920s and I was troubled when I could find very few people, maybe a handful who were willing to talk about this issue, who were willing to work on it, who were even willing to utter the words climate and change together in an audible voice.

So I realized we had a secondary problem or an additional problem to what the NOAA scientists had told me, which is that one political party was just completely absent when it came to this issue. So that triggered an effort inside the Congress to start closing that partisan divide. And we established, I established, together with my colleague from the Palm Beach Area, Ted Deutch, a Democrat, the House Climate Solutions Caucus, and that became the first ever internal organization in Congress to address climate change in a bipartisan way…

Casey: For Congressman Curbelo, caring about climate change came naturally after a presentation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But scientific data often has a high barrier to entry -- it can be hard to communicate complex equations and models to lay-audiences in a concise, digestible way. And most people don’t have a team of scientists coming to their door to explain why climate change is a serious problem. When we talked to Jerry Taylor, he shared how he moved from being a climate skeptic to a proponent of climate action. Jerry Taylor was a senior fellow and vice president at the Cato Institute, where he describes his job as a “warrior” for climate change denial.  In his words, he wrote climate skeptic talking points for a living.  He thought he had a solid understanding of climate science, but a conversation with a frustrated physicist began to change his mind...

Jerry Taylor: One of the things that was the first incident that made me question the narratives I was forwarding: About a little bit more than a decade after James Hansen testified in front of the United States Senate in 1988, I was on television debating Joe Romm, who is now at the Center for American Progress, but you know, he's a physicist who's been active in the climate debate for a long time. And I was on TV and I said, “You know, Joe, it's been more than a decade since James Hansen testified in 1988. During that testimony, he offered projections about where temperatures were going to go if we continued down a business as usual path. We'd been on a business as usual path since 1988. And if you look at his temperature projections, we've only seen about a quarter or a third of the warming that he says that should have occurred by now. And I said, now what that tells me is that his models run hot, and that while climate change is real and global warming is happening, we can look at the data and see that it's not playing out as dramatically as a lot of people in your community say it should have played out by now. And that suggests to me that climate change will be far less of a disruptive event than we're being told by people like you. 

So I went into the dressing room afterwards to get de-mic’d and get the makeup off, and Joe looked at me and says, “Did you even read Hansen's testimony or is this just stuff, you know, you make up?” And I said, no, I read his testimony a while back. And he says, all right, well, he said, “do me a favor, go back and reread that testimony. He says, if you go back and reread that testimony, strictly speaking, what you're saying is correct, which is what's so maddening here. But the reason that Hansen's temperature projections were off isn't that the models run hot. It's that in 1988, his projections about what greenhouse gas emissions would look like were off. He thought there'd be a lot more greenhouse gas emissions than we've seen, and that's what drove those high temperature projections.

He said, remember Jerry, when he gave that testimony, that was before the Montreal protocol was signed, which took a lot of greenhouse gases out of the economy. That was before major recessions. That was before price declines in natural gas, which started playing out through the economy. And he said, “so if you look further in his testimony, Jerry, you will find that he offered a couple of other scenarios as well, with temperature projections. Scenario A is the one you were talking about, which is off. Scenario B,” and at the time of this debate, would have been correct. He said, “Look, the Scenario B that Hansen offers in his testimony in 1988 has an emissions portfolio projection which tracks pretty closely to what we've had since 1988.” And he said, “and he gave a temperature projection about what he thinks would happen under that sort of emissions portfolio.” And he said, “Jerry, it's pretty much spot on.” He says, “so when you're telling me ‘his models run hot,’” he said, “it's just crap!” If you look at his emission scenarios... may be off because look, he's a scientist and not an economist. These things are hard to predict. But, you're being incredibly misrepresentative so where the hell did you get that? Of course. Now, where I got it was from one of the scientists I was working with who had recently given testimony to the United States Senate, exactly to the effect that I offered on television.

And Joe said, “Look, you go back to your office when you leave here, you reread Hansen's testimony and you tell me I'm wrong.” And he says, “or not, just continue being the hack that you are. Why I hate debating people like you on television is that the story I just gave you, I don't have five or 10 minutes on TV here to walk viewers through this. And it's kind of sophisticated stuff.” He said, “so that's why I generally don't debate people like you.” So I went back to my office and re-read the testimony, and Joe was right as far as I could tell! And I went to the scientists that I've been working with who had just given testimony that echoed what I had said on television, and I explained what had just happened. I said, ‘so what am I missing here?’ And it turns out I wasn't missing anything! I mean, we had about a half hour conversation about it. The scientists said, ‘look, you know, I'm not James Hansen's attorney, let him try to explain the discrepancy between his temperature projections from business as usual, given what we've actually seen.’

That was really remarkable to me because, like many of us, look, I'm not a scientist. I was a gunslinger at the Cato Institute in this debate. I'm not stupid. I do read the literature and read these studies, but I'm not a scientist. And you're deferring to expertise that you trust.

And at that point I discovered that I hadn't been doing near the due diligence I should be doing on the evidence that I was forwarding. And from that point forward, I made it a point to begin doing that because I did not want to sound ignorant or disingenuous on television. And the more I did that, the more I found that story that I just told you being played out over and over and over again.

Or if it wasn't purposefully misrepresentative or misleading, it would cherry pick data, or it would, it turns out that the paper, which looked fairly impressive, had never gone through peer review, or once I started digging into the reactions in the paper, I found that it gets shot full of holes by anybody who takes any, even a casual look at it. And that's the first sign I received that I should maybe be reassessing where I was on this discussion.

Casey: It’s pretty remarkable to hear people’s stories about doing a “180” on climate change… Jerry Taylor mentions he used to work for the Cato Institute -- that’s a think tank founded and funded by the Koch brothers, who are notorious for pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-climate, pro-fossil fuel messaging and political efforts. They were the big money behind The Tea Party.  But now, Jerry Taylor is president of the Niskanen Center, a new think tank that researches and advocates for market-oriented solutions to climate change, among other things. 

For most of our conservative guests, advocating for climate action has involved some evolution in thinking. Lots of minds changed, difficult conversations, and career changes: Congressman Inglis says his climate leadership was a big part of why he lost his congressional seat… But there are interesting stories from our progressive guests, too. We spoke to two progressive activists about how the climate became the issue they fight for. For each of them, climate change is an issue of justice and human rights:

Saya Ameli Hajebi: My name is Saya Ameli Hajebi, and I’ve been organizing with Sunrise for about a year now, and it’s been amazing.

Casey: Saya Ameli Hajebi is a youth activist who was involved with the Sunrise Movement, which we heard about in Episode 4. Sunrise is a youth movement dedicated to halting climate change through political action.

Saya Ameli Hajebi: I've kind of always been very passionate about climate action and in Iran, where I lived for the majority of my life before moving here with my family about eight years ago, I was always struck by how the government was always prosecuting people and making it extremely difficult for people to voice their opinions. To be an activist in Iran was a gamble between life and death. However, when we moved here, I saw that it really is possible to try to have a democracy and it is possible for the government to hear people out. 

…Basically, when I started high school, I immediately joined this environmental action club and going in initially, I just thought that it was going to be, you know, a couple of high schoolers sitting around a table complaining about climate change. And I didn't really expect to make any tangible change. ...the problem is if you do sit around a table and you just talk about it, we don't get anything done. And I thought that well, as a high schooler, we can't vote. And even though it is our future that is most at stake here. And it is us who are going to be kind of taking the brunt of climate change, and the adverse effects of it, I felt like we were powerless. But then I started to hear about sunrise…

...It's a movement of young people, basically taking the matter into our own hands. There’s a lot of other climate movements that kind of wait for legislation to be on the table for us to go and support it. But what really set sunrise apart for me was not only the fact that it was made up of people like me who were young and determined and passionate, but also that… If there wasn't any legislation, if there wasn't any pledge saying that, like “politicians, for example, shouldn't be taking money from fossil fuels”... Well, we made that pledge and then we went to their office to ask them to sign it. 

Casey: As one of her first actions with Sunrise, Hajebi participated in a sit-in at the office of Robert DeLeo, the speaker of the house for the Massachusetts legislature. He had been accepting money from the fossil fuel industry to fund his campaign, and…

Saya Ameli Hajebi: ...And we were quite disappointed because there was this amazing bill that was going through that would get us to a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050 in Massachusetts. And when this bill reached his table, he watered it down and pushed that date to 2100. We would be well gone by then…. And I was shook. I thought that, well, politicians should be accountable to the people and they should listen to us all the time. And here was Robert DeLeo taking money from fossil fuels and just kind of demolishing this bill.

Casey: During the sit-in, the activists filed into DeLeo’s office and shared their stories with his aides and office staff:

Saya Ameli Hajebi: I spoke about how my family came to the US looking for the American dream, looking for our most basic rights of freedom of speech, clean air, clean water.

I talked about how my school kept getting canceled in Tehran because of pollution. And how democracy has been this kind of life changing thing that we really need to continue to uphold here. 

Casey: For Hajebi, climate activism is about fighting for environmental protections that guarantee clean air and clean water… but it’s also about the importance of free expression, about exercising your right to shape the world to make your own future better.

One last note on Saya Hajebi: when we finished our interview I asked her what was next…

Saya Ameli Hajebi: Uh… back to class! [Casey]: What class? Hajebi: I think it’s gonna be Spanish, actually.

Casey: I hadn’t realized the spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement’s New England chapter was a junior in high school.

Our final guest, Keya Chatterjee, came to climate change from a strictly scientific perspective. But over time, her stance has shifted, and she now fights climate change as an issue of racial and economic justice:

Keya Chatterjee: So my name is Keya Chatterjee. I am the Executive Director of US Climate Action Network. I started my career working at NASA headquarters here in Washington, DC, where I live. And I started working on climate change when I worked there. And I was so alarmed about particularly the Arctic sea-ice data that we were getting in at that time, that I just changed my career. And I started working as a climate communications program manager there at NASA. Made that transition, which is, you know, I think now kind of amusing, people who work on Arctic issues would be kind of amused that I was that alarmed in 2002, because really like the floor fell out of Arctic sea ice, maybe in 2012. And since then it's just been a precipitous decline. 

And then I moved from working at NASA. I sort of realized that, you know, having been trained as an ecosystem scientist, that like that wasn't the kind of struggle I was in. That this was much more akin to my grandparents’ participation in the Indian independence movement than anything that the scientific community had solved. And that actually, this was a problem of injustice and power. And who's wielding power over who, and who's getting hurt by that oppression.

...so much of the root cause really is colonialism and this rooting out of indigenous ways of living that were completely sustainable, and into a sort of spread of a form of capitalism that has run so amok that we've destroyed our ability to have a stable climate, and we have disturbed the climate of the only planet we know of that can support life. The conditions under which humans evolved are different conditions to the ones we're now experiencing. And we did that as human beings and we did it through colonialism and capitalism and this constant exploit of the planet.

Casey: Chatterjee landed at the US Climate Action Network, which is a group dedicated to coordinated political action around climate change. We’ll hear more from both Saya Hajebi and Keya Chatterjee in our final episode of the season, Carbon Pricing through a Progressive Lens.

Conversations, personal experiences, family stories…All have a role in how we think about climate change, and how our thinking itself changes. People change their minds.  Asking a friend or even an acquaintance to look again at the facts, or to listen to your story, or to tell you their story...That can result in a person shifting from climate skepticism to climate action. Or from light engagement on climate, to boldness. We hope these stories help you think about why the climate matters to you. As we deal with and hopefully emerge from pandemic times—you know, when we can have friends again—we’ll be looking for ways to reconnect to each other and to the wider world.  Climate conversations can be a two-for in that way. Let’s talk to people who see things differently, with civility and humanity, to get to work solving the big problems. 

Casey: In our next episode we’ll hear more from our conservative guests as we uncover the conservative case for carbon pricing. Then, in our final episode of the season, we’ll talk to progressives about where they stand on carbon pricing policy. 

Thanks for joining us. This is Pricing Nature. If you like what you’re hearing, don’t forget to:

Tusker and Haven: Rate and review, like and subscribe! 

Casey: …on your listening platform of choice. Share these episodes with your friends and family. And be sure to check out our website, pricingnature.substack.com, for extra materials.

Tusker and Haven: Extra materials are amaaaazing…. Yeaaah. 

Casey: This episode was written by Jacob Miller, with help from Casey Pickett, Maria Jiang, and Naomi Shimberg. Special thanks to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition for their partnership.  Sound engineering by Jacob Miller.  Original music by Katie Sawicki.  And a final thanks to Ryan McEvoy, Stuart DeCew and Heather Fitzgerald for making this episode possible.


Photo by BRUNO EMMANUELLE on Unsplash