Former Chevron scientist talks climate change solutions

2014-07-18T17:15:00Z 2014-07-21T06:56:17Z Former Chevron scientist talks climate change solutionsBy MIKE FERGUSON The Billings Gazette

Linda Dismore “Diz” Swift, a former Chevron scientist and executive, told the League of Women Voters of Billings on Friday that they can lend a hand to help limit the effects of climate change.

But it’s bound to be expensive and it might not be too popular politically, she said.

After building her case for the human role in climate change — a proposition that some in the room of about 40 people, judging by their questions afterward, clearly weren’t buying — Swift said she favors enacting a carbon tax over such schemes as cap and trade, which the state she now lives in, California, is trying.

Swift grew up in Great Falls and worked more than two decades for Chevron and, before that, Stillwater Mining Co. Trained as a geologist, she eventually worked in mergers and acquisitions for Chevron. She’s been working on climate change issues and teaching for the past decade or so.

The provincial government in British Columbia has taxed carbon emissions since 2006 and spends the revenue it generates — up to $1 billion annually — on tax benefits for residents. As a result, Swift said, residents in that province have the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada, fuel use there has dropped 16 percent and the provincial gross domestic product has slightly outperformed the rest of Canada — at least since 2008.

But “our U.S. democratic system will not move toward a price on carbon until the majority of our elected leaders’ constituents call for it,” she said. A carbon tax bill in the U.S. Senate stands only a 6 percent chance of passage, she said.

She said there’s a growing consensus among economists that a carbon tax is the least expensive as well as one of the most effective ways to address global warming.

“The opportunity is huge,” she said, but will require a $45 trillion investment over the next 40 or so years to “decarbonize” the U.S. energy sector by 50 percent. That investment would add millions of clean-energy jobs, she said.

Swift has allies in unlikely places, including Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary in the George W. Bush administration. Paulson is co-chair of the Risky Business initiative, which explores the economic risks of climate change in the United States.

Paulson is part of a political process that Swift would like to see others join.

“We one million people in Montana can make a difference,” Swift said. “We can keep lobbying for energy efficiency. Recycling is good, but in the long run it doesn’t really matter as much.”

There are other tools, of course, for easing global warming. Swift named and quantified the most well-known ones, including alternate energy sources such as wind and solar, as well as electric vehicles. “Full disclosure,” she said, displaying a map of one company’s plans for building recharging stations across the country. “I am a Tesla shareholder.”

Asked during a question and answer session about how likely it is that political leaders in Washington, D.C., will enact a carbon tax to help ease global warming, Swift had this to say: “Humans like immediate and certain, and (climate change) is the future and uncertain. Humans like to take care of themselves and their family; this is affecting places like Myanmar and Bangladesh.”

Told a carbon tax might work in places like California but could have little traction in Montana, Swift replied that it’s a “discussion that we want to have, because then we get action.”

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who was in the audience, said that “our country has always been willing to face challenges, like the transcontinental railroad,” but that on climate change, “I see a lack of commitment to our own ingenuity.”

Bill Brown, representing the Yellowstone County Labor Council, said he favored a carbon tax, but believes “it would be an easier sell if they could have some assurances that the proceeds would go into the energy sector — not like the tobacco settlement, which became a general revenue cash cow.”

How that revenue is used “is part of the discussion,” Swift said, adding that the loss of jobs among the coal miners that Brown represents “is sad, but they can learn to do other things,” such as working to provide wind solutions.

“In the past there were lots of sailors on sailing ships, and I’m sorry but that’s a change we will need to look at,” she said of displaced workers. “We need to look at the people who are going to be the most impacted.”

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