Remember July? High temperatures hovered around 100 in Wisconsin, and it didn't rain for weeks. Much of the rest of the Midwest experienced the same conditions. Crops failed. Livestock producers started culling their herds. Our home air conditioners, just used occasionally in a "normal" summer, ran nonstop.
Or, wait. Is this the new normal?
Madison citizen climate activist Madeleine Para is convinced it need not be, and she's has been working as a volunteer organizer for a group called Citizens Climate Lobby to fight this scary trend of rising temperatures.
The group is focused on reducing carbon levels. Para says most climate scientists agree that carbon in the atmosphere causes temperature hikes and that human activities are increasing carbon levels. Its current mission is to promote passage of the Save Our Climate Act through lobbying, education and media attention.
The bill, which would establish a program called Carbon Fee and Dividend, was introduced in fall 2011 by U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-California) and has 22 cosponsors. It has been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means, which has not taken any action on it to date.
Para notes that the program is sometimes called a carbon tax. "The idea is that if you want less of something, you make it more expensive," she says. "Fossil fuel companies would pay a fee based on how much carbon will be produced when their products are burned. This would make these fuels more expensive for consumers, but the dividend part is that all the money from the fee would be returned to every adult in the U.S. The government would collect the fees and return the money to consumers as a rebate."
Para and others in Citizens Climate Lobby are convinced that a carbon tax would slow the warming trend by reducing carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, considered to be a safe level.
Since 1958, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started tracking carbon levels, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has risen from 315 to 394 parts per million. NOAA also reported that temperatures in July were the highest since records began in 1880. Average global temperatures rose about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, with most of that occuring since 1980.
The extreme heat and drought this summer followed an unusually mild winter in Wisconsin and most of the upper Midwest.
Citizens Climate Lobby was founded by Marshall Saunders, a former real estate broker from Colorado. Because he felt the fossil fuel industry wielded too much power among legislators, he formed the group to encourage ordinary citizens to organize a grassroots effort to lobby Congress about climate concerns. Currently the organization has 60 chapters and, with 837 members in the U.S. and Canada, is growing rapidly. Funding comes from Saunders and fundraising by local chapters.
On the group's website, Saunders invites interested people to listen to a bimonthly "introductory call" as a first step toward getting involved. The group, he says, is a powerful way to "create the political will for a livable world."
Para, who teaches at Chavez Elementary School, founded the Madison chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby in 2011. Since then she has started chapters in Stevens Point, Eau Claire and southeast Wisconsin.
Para had long been alarmed about climate change, but it was James Hansen's book about a looming disaster, Storms of My Grandchildren, that motivated her to become actively involved.
"When I read that book in 2009, I discovered that my feeling that it was urgent was valid," she says. "I realized that if that's really the situation, we have to do something."
Para started researching the issues in earnest, and when she learned about Citizens Climate Lobby, she joined. After a short time, she decided to cut her teaching job to half time and now spends up to 40 hours a week on her activist work.
She says membership in the Madison chapter has doubled since a year ago to about 60. Last month, 20 members from Wisconsin traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a national Citizens Climate Lobby conference and to talk with legislators and their aides. She says the meetings were cordial and productive.
"We have such a huge sense of distance between Democrats and Republicans. Those of us who are on the liberal side kind of assume that the Republicans won't want to talk to us. But it's not true. They may not see eye to eye with us on climate change, but they are willing to talk."
Kermit Hovey, who has worked as a manager at Madison Area Urban Ministry and other nonprofits, joined the group in July and made the trip to D.C. He was surprised, especially, by the reception the group got when they visited Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican who has represented the 5th Congressional District since 1978.
"Sensenbrenner is a skeptic about climate change, but he sat down with us and we had a vigorous and energetic conversation," says Hovey. "I think that shows there's hope, even given the adversarial nature of politics today. He didn't change his position, but I believe we established a foundation for further discussion."
Hovey says he hopes some of the arguments for a carbon tax - that it would increase national security and economic development by decreasing reliance on foreign oil - will hit home with conservatives.
Sensenbrenner, however, is not convinced at this point. He contends that, contrary to the data from NOAA, carbon emissions are lower than they have been in 20 years. He also says that energy prices are low because power plants have switched from coal to natural gas. And he predicts that higher energy prices would drive more jobs overseas.
"I am also concerned that it would violate our World Trade Organization obligations," he said in a written statement. "Additionally, the bill would have a disproportionately negative effect on states that depend on fossil fuels, like Wisconsin. Every Wisconsin family would feel the economic impact of a carbon tax."
Para says her group will need Republicans to sign on. "I am hopeful that we can gain Republican support because the carbon fee is very rooted in Republican values," she says. "It is revenue neutral because the government doesn't keep the money - it goes back to the people. That's very important to people who signed the no-new-taxes agreement. And it's rooted in the free market because it levels the playing field between fossil and renewable fuels."
In addition to communicating with legislators, members of Citizens Climate Lobby write letters to editors, visit editorial boards, and spend a lot of time learning about climate science so they can hold informed conversations about their concerns. And they are passionate about those concerns.
Dan Slick, an art teacher at Chavez Elementary School, spent four days during the height of the July heat wave canvassing local businesses to collect signatures in support of the Save Our Climate Act.
"I got involved because I'm a father and grandfather, so I have to be concerned for the future," he says. "I don't want my kids and grandkids to come back to me when the Dairy State becomes a dry state and the breadbasket is a dustbowl and ask me why I didn't do something to stop it."
"All the little things we do to try to reduce our energy use are important," says Para, who drives a Prius and moved to a small energy-efficient apartment to reduce her own carbon footprint. "But it's not enough. If Congress acts, the rest of the world will follow. Everything would shift."