Photo by Corinne Woodruff
A longtime marketing executive and a former owner of the South Bend music club Vegetable Buddies, Andy Panelli ’77, ’83MBA is still in the business of promotion. Now, though, he’s promoting action against climate change — from grass-roots organizing through his parish outside Chicago to lobbying representatives in Washington. Panelli discussed the proposed federal law that he considers the best path forward and the role the Catholic Church plays in addressing the threat of a warming planet:
You support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763), even meeting with lawmakers to urge passage of the bill. Why do you see the EICDA as the best way to address climate change?
I like this legislation because it’s simple, elegant, bipartisan in its origin, and may have best chances to be accepted by both parties. I believe it is best suited to harness good old-fashioned American innovation. EICDA puts an annually increasing fee on carbon emissions of the products energy producers sell and then returns that fee to every American household in the form of a monthly dividend check. Once the market knows the price of fossil fuels will be steadily increasing (reflecting their true social and economic costs) and understands that fossil fuels will be more expensive than clean energy alternatives, there’ll be a torrent of investment in “clean” and low-emitting energy innovation. My other “likes” fall into a couple of categories:
Effectiveness: A think tank which grew out of MIT by the name of Climate Interactive developed a simulator based on current scientific data which models the array of actions that can be taken to lower the trajectory on end-of-century temperature increase. This included new technology, renewables, slowing deforestation, reforestation, electrification of transportation, nuclear, energy efficiency and numerous other possible actions. As it turns out, an annually increasing carbon fee had by far the single biggest impact on reducing temperature rise. This is because it would accelerate the conversion to clean energy the fastest. The legislation targets a 5 percent per year reduction of carbon emissions or the annual carbon fee can be raised. It will reduce carbon emissions 40 percent in 12 years and 90 percent by 2050, exceeding Paris Agreement targets.
Economic impact: A study by Regional Economic Modeling Inc. demonstrated that EICDA would create 2.1 million jobs within 10 years. And the monthly dividend checks received by homeowners could provide an ongoing element of economic stimulus.
Competitiveness: Border adjustment mechanisms are included in the legislation to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries that don’t have a similar carbon fee. Border adjustments equalize the carbon tax burden between domestic and foreign companies. Foreign-made carbon-intensive goods like steel, aluminum and paper that are imported into the U.S. would have to pay the same amount for their carbon footprint as American manufacturers do, and U.S. companies that export similar goods would get a refund of the carbon fee for products they sell to countries that don't price carbon equivalently. This neutralizes any incentive for U.S. businesses to move their production overseas to avoid the carbon fee. It also encourages other countries, when they see that their exports to the U.S. will have to pay a carbon fee to the U.S. government, to impose their own carbon fee so that they can keep the money.
Endorsements: A diverse cast of characters think this type of legislation is the way to go. Former White House Chief of Staff James Baker and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson support this type of legislation. George Shultz (President Reagan’s Secretary of State), Democratic presidential hopeful John Delaney, evangelical climatologist Katherine Hayhoe and James Hansen (NASA’s former preeminent climatologist turned activist) have given outright endorsements, to name just a few. In January, a strong statement of support was given by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Other supporters of this type of legislation include 3,400 top economists, 27 Nobel laureates and 15 Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors. These endorsers call it “the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.”
Where does the bill stand in terms of congressional support? In your lobbying on Capitol Hill, what kinds of opposition have you encountered that could weaken or defeat the measure?
The bill has 62 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. We need more, plus a bipartisan bill in the Senate, before the political support will be strong enough to bring it to a vote. We have struggled to get more Republicans on board. I believe there are some that would support it, but who won’t come forward since the current administration won’t acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change is a problem. I’ve personally met resistance with legislators where coal mining is a part of the district’s economy. They feel support of this bill would be a vote against those constituents. What to do for coal country does need to be addressed with parallel legislation to provide for revitalization of these coal communities as the markets move towards clean energy. But what’s ironic is that some of these same districts have a very large dependence on agriculture. So, while congressional reps try to protect coal in one part of their district, studies show global warming will significantly hurt crop yields in another part of that same districts, due to wetter planting seasons and hotter, drier summers. (Agriculture is exempt from the carbon fee, as is the military in EICDA legislation). In other fossil fuel intensive districts, intense lobbying and campaign contributions (fossil fuel companies spent $354 million in the 2015-2016 election cycle) also can play a role in resistance to putting a fee on carbon emissions.
How do the exemptions for agriculture and the military, which each have a major impact on the environment, affect what the legislation could accomplish?
The exemptions for fuels used on farms and for the military will have a relatively small impact, about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but are considered necessary to the bill’s success. On the agricultural side, the prices farmers can charge for their products are constrained by the ups and downs of the commodity markets, meaning they can't pass the carbon fee cost on to their customers the way most other businesses can. This is one reason that farmers are already exempt from other taxes on diesel fuel used in their tractors and other machinery. The military exemption is limited to fuels used in military equipment or on military bases in the U.S. This exemption is important to ensure EICDA is not a burden on military readiness and national security, or attacked as such. Overall, the 1 percent impact on emissions will be a small concession necessary to facilitate congressional support. Any lasting legislation needs to be bipartisan and no climate legislation can accomplish anything if it can't be passed into law. The projected effectiveness of carbon emissions reduction of 40 percent in 12 years and 90 percent by 2050 are modeled including these exceptions.
Panelli, left, and Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski
What role does the Catholic Church play in addressing climate issues, from the global scale to the parish level? How has the Church’s position has influenced opinion and action?
The Catholic Church has played an important role in highlighting the issue, but it’s only been at the highest levels of the church. The Church has not nearly lived up to its potential to influence the outcome. More education of parishioners is needed. And once educated, much more advocacy needs to be encouraged. Then parishioners need to act. Pope John Paul II said “‘greenhouse’ effect has now reached crisis proportions” and that “the ecological crisis is a moral issue.” That was 29 years ago! Pope Benedict XVI asked, “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification … the loss of biodiversity, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?” That was 10 years ago. The popes and some bishops get it. But it has not percolated down to parishioners. Pope Francis put an even a brighter spotlight on creation care with his encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015. He has underscored our moral obligation to act on this issue because those least responsible for creating this mess, the poor and future generations, will suffer the most.
But we need more educational focus at the parish level to harness the power of 70 million U.S. Catholics to be a powerful force for action on climate change. To those parishioners who have not yet accepted climate science and see no reason to act, I remind them of the doctrine of prudence by the USCCB back in 2001 that stated: “Significant levels of scientific consensus — even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious — justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers.”
There are dire predictions that we’ve passed a point of no return for at least some level of harmful warming. Do you think there’s enough political will and public urgency to meet the challenge?
We must guard against the reflexive psychological response that says, “Give up, it’s too late to act.” There is still time to act, but not much time to avoid environmental and ecological tipping points like arctic ice melt and permafrost thaw. Unfortunately, there is not enough political will and public urgency to meet the challenge at this moment in time. And the cost of inaction will be high. But there is momentum building that is so strong, I’m optimistic it is coming soon. The media coverage of this issue has been sustained. Public sentiment has been shifting favorably towards the recognition that climate change is real and human activity is the main driver. New carbon pricing bills have already emerged in the last few months. A poll by Luntz Global Partners showed 58 percent of GOP voters under 40 are more concerned about climate change now than they were only one year ago.
Faith-based communities are jumping on board. The House of Representatives has reinstituted the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus with over 60 members and the Senate just formed their own climate caucus. Advocacy continues to slowly build steam as signaled by the biggest climate march yet on September 20. But even though progress is being made, we should not underestimate the forces of inertia driven by companies that profit from fossil fuel production and unsustainable development, and their lobbyists. Some who profit from the status quo have intentionally worked to create confusion around the issue to slow progress and will continue to throw up barriers. We can, will and must overcome these barriers and work harder to create the political will that is currently missing. We also need to encourage our politicians to avoid turning this into political football. I remain confident we can accomplish this. It won’t happen laying on the sofa watching TV.
The magnitude of the climate threat leaves some people feeling that individual efforts are futile. How do you grapple with that from a personal standpoint and what do you suggest to people who want to try to make a difference in their daily lives?
The way I deal with the overwhelming nature of the threat and the related feelings of futility is by trying to do something every day to help mitigate the problem. I’m motivated by a quote I heard from a diocesan social justice director who said, “If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters.” Of course, the first action is to look at your own carbon footprint and find ways to reduce your household emissions. Then there are dozens of ways to engage on the climate issue depending on your available time. Everyone should be contacting their congressional reps — and do it frequently by calling or writing for specific action on climate. Reps need a steady flow of contacts to keep them aware that this is an important issue for their constituents. Visiting your representatives at town halls or at their local offices and requesting specific action (like support for EICDA) is another step that can be taken. I joined the nonpartisan Citizens Climate Lobby, which trained me on how to approach representatives and senators in the most effective way.
CCL also offers training on how to talk to family members and friends in productive ways that maximize your ability to influence them. Their free “university” provides content training on issues and actions. Talking about climate change is important! Most avoid the subject. I try to talk about it most every day. If you listen to what people have to say about it respectfully, and look for shared values in their response, you’ll be able to frame your response and share information in a way that is more likely to be received. That approach helps us avoid talking past each other. Letters to the editor amplify your voice, as do endorsements for specific legislation from business, civic and religious leaders. These endorsements are also important to national and state representatives. If you are discouraged by gridlock on the issue in D.C., focus a little more on state initiatives for clean energy with groups like the Sierra Club.
You can also see if there is a path forward to advocacy through your parish or diocese. I started a creation care team through my parish. Then we got other nearby parishes involved. We put on events to educate parishioners about climate change and Church-supported legislation. We underscore Pope Francis’ message that this is a social justice issue not a political issue. Catholic Climate Covenant has great resources and ongoing support to get a creation care team started at your parish. No matter how you choose to engage, your will find it immensely gratifying to contribute to the solution.
Interview by Jason Kelly ’95, an associate editor of this magazine.