Back when Danny Richter ’05 was taking his introductory geology class at Notre Dame, Professor Clive Neal would use a simple exercise designed to get at a simple truth.
Displaying a photograph of Earth taken from an Apollo spacecraft, Neal would ask students what they saw — clouds, sure, and also the outlines of oceans and land. More important, he would tell them, the photo showed how finite and limited the planet and its resources really are.
Richter had come to Notre Dame from California with interest in being a doctor and serving in public health, but as he learned about the planet’s geological history in courses taught by Neal and others, the more he grasped how the conditions allowing humans to thrive are the merest blink in the universe’s long stare.
“Once I realized how different the Earth has actually been in the past, there’s not really any reason that this couldn’t happen again,” he says of the planet’s far less habitable history. “Geologically speaking, we are at a rare time. That’s the thing that really got me.”
Elongating this temperate era has become the focus of Richter’s professional career. Today, he is vice president of government affairs for Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), working to get public officials across all ideological boundaries on board with legislation that aims to make it more expensive to pollute and more profitable for Americans to curb their energy use.
“I want us to be able to adjust climate regardless of who’s the president, who controls the House, who controls the Senate,” he says. “Taking care of the environment is the most fundamental form of public health you can do.”
Richter’s father attended Notre Dame. A steady diet of football games and a romanticized notion of snowfall gleaned from the magical cartoon realism of Calvin and Hobbes made his son aspire to study under the Dome, too. After earning his degree in environmental geoscience, Danny Richter set off to the University of California, San Diego, for his doctoral work, traveling the world to research the oceans.
He came across CCL in 2008, only a few months after businessman and activist Marshall Saunders founded the organization. Inspired by the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the late Saunders was building a grassroots network of national chapters to pressure both Democrats and Republicans — “in a relentless, unstoppable, yet friendly and respectful way,” he would tell volunteers — to brake a rapidly heating planet. Richter got in on the ground floor, starting one of the first chapters and then becoming an early paid staffer, first as legislative director and then assuming his current role in 2017.
“They were really good at training people how to engage with their elected members of Congress,” he says. “This is a global problem. In order for the United States to play our role, you really need Congress to act.”
Mark Reynolds, the former executive director for CCL, says Richter’s intellect and background as a scientist helped him take complex subjects and make them understandable for any audience. When he moved to Washington, D.C., Richter also demonstrated a knack for finding his footing in a “tricky” political world, Reynolds says, figuring out how to be an effective manager and building up an indispensable team.
“When senators are thinking about proposing legislation, they come to [CCL] first,” he says. “He’s been part of something that went from this tiny, little, cute, niche operation to a significant force.”
Richter’s main goal now at CCL, which has grown to nearly 600 chapters around the world, is to build support for passage of a carbon tax and dividend program. Under that system, a tax would be applied to businesses that generate emissions, and some of that money would regularly be given to every American in a dividend to help them cover any increased costs those companies would pass on to customers in their bills. As a secondary incentive, citizens who reduce their own energy consumption could pocket that money. The idea has won the support of Nobel laureates, thousands of public officials and economists, and notables ranging from activist Bill McKibben and academic James Hansen to Tesla founder Elon Musk.
“It’s systemic, and it has expert support,” Richter says. “You have everybody involved in trying to decarbonize their life.”
This big idea has its skeptics. One Nature Climate Change study published in January, for example, found that opinions on carbon taxes in parts of Canada and Switzerland were affected far more by preexisting political identities than by the reality of a corresponding income tax credit or health insurance discount. Wider difficulties include the persisting disbelief in climate change’s reality or severity and, in the U.S., the apparent inability to work meaningful, large-scale legislation through a deadlocked Congress.
People who know Richter say he has the temperament and commitment to push through all that. When he was a student at Notre Dame, says Father Peter Jarret, CSC, ’86, ’91M.Div., his rector in Keough Hall, Richter focused more on living as an example of his beliefs rather than being confrontational. Humor and heart have always served him well — be it taking lighthearted ribbing about his vegetarian diet or getting his picture taken wearing a tuxedo and posing with a penguin during a research trip to Antarctica.
“He was a person who loved learning and would spend a lot of time getting to the answer of something. It was his passion for the earth, for climate, for the poor, for everything,” Jarret says of Richter’s Notre Dame days. “That’s what made him an effective witness.”
Richter believes progress is being made. He points to victories such as a 2015 resolution from former U.S. Representative Chris Gibson of New York and other Republicans advocating for action on climate change, last year’s creation of a Conservative Climate Caucus, and bipartisan support for proposed carbon-pricing legislation as necessary beginning steps.
“You have to be willing as an individual to speak to people you disagree with,” Richter says. “If you have a ‘Democrat-only’ theory of change, I don’t find that in any way, shape or form compelling.”
This strategy undoubtedly will take tremendous effort and precious time. But when the U.S. is getting left behind by peer countries like Canada and Japan that are more willing to implement climate-change policies — and potentially hold other countries accountable through tariff and trade mechanisms — Richter believes this is the best way to get members of Congress to believe in the risks that climate change poses not only to clean air and coastal lands, but to the economy itself.
“That could mean a lot of jobs lost,” he says. “That is the language that politicians understand.”
Liam Farrell is a writer who lives in Maryland.