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Climate action has to stay focused on fairness

Since the Legislature reconvened on Feb. 3, I’ve heard hundreds of Oregonians — at rallies, in committee hearings, in Capitol hallways — make their case on Senate Bill 1530, the revamped cap-and-invest bill to slash greenhouse gas emissions. After years of working on this issue, I notice these conversations bringing me back to the understated heart of this battle. It’s fairness.

That became clear in the testimony of a well-dressed older woman from Portland to a Senate committee last Saturday. She was troubled by comments of earlier witnesses — loggers, ranchers and other rural Oregonians who’d told us that rising costs from this bill would devastate their towns and businesses. That, she said, is just selfish. “What matters most is our children and the planet,” she said. “To solve this huge problem, we all have to sacrifice.”

I glanced at the side of the room where those rural folks clustered together. Though they were quiet, you could almost read a thought bubble over their heads: Easy for you to say, lady. How about if you get in your Prius or Tesla or whatever and drive back to Portland and your fat pension check, and you can “sacrifice” preaching fairy tales to people who actually have to make a living.

That moment suggests that the most divisive element of this battle isn’t whether climate change is real, or whether human activity’s a major cause; most people accept both points. It’s not whether we need to pare back our fossil fuel dependency. It’s not even whether it makes sense for Oregon, with its trivial percentage of global emissions, to take bold action ahead of most states and the national government (which is indisputably where the most critical leadership has to come from). There’s a valid argument on that point, but surveys tell us most Oregonians want to move forward, partly to help craft a template for multi-state action, partly because of the economic benefits awaiting early-adopter states in the necessary shift to clean energy, and partly because we aren’t willing, some years from now, to look our grandchildren in the eyes and tell them we refused to act boldly because others wouldn’t act boldly.

The divide I’m noticing would narrow if we were slower to brand Timber Unity folks as selfishly unwilling to sacrifice. Let’s be honest that the size of your sacrifice for this necessary transition depends on your level of economic security, as well as how bound up your livelihood is with fossil fuels. It’s much easier for me to push for strong climate legislation as an economically comfortable guy with grown, independent kids and a job that (overlooking too-frequent drives to Salem and back) isn’t fuel-intensive, than if I drove log trucks or ranched for a living.

I hear some people despair that we can’t meet this kind of challenge because human nature is selfish. That ignores historical moments when people gave mightily for causes bigger than themselves. My parents spoke with pride and pleasure about what they gave up every day in the home-front effort to win World War II. Stories of astonishing selflessness in response to natural disaster are too common to list. My takeaway is that human nature is in fact generous when two things are true:

1. The crisis or suffering is clear and present, and

2. People see everyone pitching in for the common good.

It well may be that wildfires and smoke (American or Australian), ferocious storms and flooding across the nation, and 65-degree days in Antarctica are taking care of No. 1.

No. 2 is more difficult. At the national/international level, let’s remember that multinational fossil fuel companies set all-time net profit records — $6 billion to $8 billion each quarter for years on end, straight to stockholders’ pockets — long after their internal memos detailed the global damage their product would eventually cause. We could look at their cheery advertising since they realized that and figure out their fair contribution to solutions.

At the state level, SB 1530 is designed — despite flat-out false claims from some organizers of the opposition — to minimize cost impacts on economically vulnerable people and businesses, and to make sure that most of the resources from pollution fees flow to rural Oregon. That doesn’t mean the path ahead is easy. At each step of the way, there’s a question that all of us, both in or out of government, should be asking: How do we share the burden of this crucial, complex transition more fairly?

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashand, represents District 3, most of Jackson County. To contact him, or for details on how the climate bill affects the Rogue Valley and the rest of rural Oregon, write to sen.jeffgolden@oregonlegislature.gov

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