How to Bring Down the Coal and Oil Goliath: A Million Personal Letters

Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry can expect more than a lump of coal in their stockings this Christmas. Their clients are tickled pink that legislation to curtail greenhouse gases vanished in a puff of smoke during the 111th Congress.

Of course, when you have the power to bludgeon politicians with millions of dollars in negative advertising, the job can't be too hard.

The extent of that arm-twisting came to light in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article, with Al Gore observing that legislation to stop climate change now has to be approved by the special interests that are causing it.

If that continues to be the case, we can abandon all hope of reversing the process that is melting glaciers and parching farmlands, a process that will eventually make climate refugees out of hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas.

The debacle in the Senate -- where climate legislation met its demise -- has so disheartened climate activists that many have given up altogether on the strategy of pricing carbon. The big talk now is about investing in innovations that will bring down the cost of clean energy. The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution are proposing annual federal funding of $25 billion to bolster green tech.

But this is peanuts compared to the investor dollars sitting on the sidelines waiting for a clear price signal on carbon. How quickly can R&D bring down the cost of clean energy to compete with fossil fuels? We have no idea. We do know, however, that at the right amount, a steadily-increasing fee on coal, oil and gas will level the playing field for clean energy within a decade.

So, a price on carbon is still our best hope. But how do we overcome the insidious influence of dirty energy and pass effective climate legislation? How do we bring down the imposing Goliath standing in the way of a solution that will keep us from cooking the planet?

Say hello to David in the person of Laurie Williams.

A year ago, she and her husband Allan Zabel made waves with a video -- "The Huge Mistake" -- critiquing cap-and-trade legislation as an inadequate solution that wouldn't produce the necessary reductions in carbon dioxide. Both are attorneys with the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, but they speak as private citizens when advocating for effective climate legislation.

Earlier in the year, when negotiations on the Senate bill produced a stream of concessions rendering the proposed legislation all but useless, Laurie was hatching a plan to short-circuit the power of the fossil fuel lobby. The stone she chose to load in her slingshot was the personal letter -- a million of them.

With support from Citizens Climate Lobby, Laurie just launched the Million Letter March, a campaign to generate a million personal letters -- signed, placed in a stamped envelope and mailed to Washington -- asking members of Congress to enact effective legislation to stop climate change. And by effective legislation, we're talking about a direct fee on carbon-based fuels, such that solar, wind and other forms of clean energy are cheaper than dirty energy within ten years. And to make sure that families can afford the energy they need -- a carbon fee will increase the cost -- all the revenue generated should be returned equitably to every American, preferably as monthly rebates or "green checks."

The campaign is in its infancy, but some big names are already behind it. An introductory video on the home page features such climate luminaries as NASA scientist James Hansen, founder Bill McKibben and Plan B author Lester Brown. At several events organized by on Oct. 10, the Million Letter March found an enthusiastic audience, with people taking the time to write letters at work parties. (Note to McKibben: The Million Letter March would be a great follow up for folks who participated in 10.10.10 events).

If you're thinking of joining the "march," be warned: It'll take longer than the typical two minutes people spend with an online petition. I've never encountered a politician who said, "Yeah, that Internet petition really convinced me!" But time after time, Congressional offices tell us that a personal letter from a constituent is the most powerful form of communication and carries the greatest impact. So, you have to decide: Is it worth 30 minutes of your time -- what you would spend watching a sit-com -- to write and send a letter that can help save the world?

I'm hoping a million of us will say "yes" to that. Load up your slingshots and let it fly.