by Somi Jun '20
On the Friday night after midterms week, seven Princeton undergraduates gathered in the Pace Center for Civic Engagement to talk climate change legislation. Decked in hoodies, sweats, and mismatched socks, these college students dedicated another long night to their cause: fighting for a New Jersey “pollution fee and dividend,” which they claim would prevent thousands of premature deaths a year. These teenagers and early 20-somethings spent months working in this student lounge, typing away on their sticker-covered laptops, in hopes of saving the world.
As the school year comes to a close, they are cautiously optimistic. The students believe they are the only group in the state working on a pollution fee and dividend policy, which would place a fee on fossil fuel-based energy and redistribute the revenue to New Jersey constituents. The students have received support from several legislators and will meet with a group of “stakeholders” including state Senator Kip Bateman in August. As a result, they are closer than ever to getting the policy started as a bill in the New Jersey legislature, but are still wary of how their position as students affects the project.
Jonathan Lu ‘18 started the Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI) in January 2017, chagrined after seeing President Trump appoint a climate change denier to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Though Lu, a pre-med Computer Science concentrator, did not have experience with politics, law, climate science, or economics at that time, he believed that any concerned citizen should be able to get involved in advocacy work. He started PSCI to educate and advocate for climate justice beyond campus.
PSCI started researching carbon pricing as a way to mitigate climate change. At the end of the spring 2017 semester, Lu and Chaz Copeland ‘19 met with New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16), who also works in Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, to see if it was feasible to pass fossil fuel pricing legislation in the state. Similar legislation had been campaigned for in Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and New York, and successfully implemented in Ireland, Denmark, and Canada. New Jersey seemed primed for a fossil fuel pricing strategy with environmentalist Phil Murphy as its new governor.
Zwicker told Lu and Copeland to write him a policy, one that could be implemented in New Jersey. Lu and Copeland were busy that summer, studying the MCAT and attending a global seminar in Namibia respectively, but a group of about seven Princeton High School students spent much of summer 2017 researching and writing a policy for Zwicker. They worked on what would become a 94-page “white paper,” which persuades legislators on how a policy should be passed and implemented. The group’s white paper is supposed to account for the idiosyncrasies of New Jersey law and act as a “pre-bill,” a thorough primer for any interested legislator. The high school students led the research efforts with only periodic input from Lu, Copeland, and Zwicker.
Though most of the high school students have left Princeton now, moving on to their respective universities, Princeton undergraduates have picked up and run with the project. The undergraduates, now the New Jersey Pollution Fee and Dividend (NJPFD) branch of PSCI, hammered out the white paper over intersession, working for five days straight to finish the first draft.
Amanda Eisenhour ‘21, a first-year, has led much of the effort to research the concerns of New Jersey residents. She has reached out to several dozen organizations in New Jersey, emailing, talking on the phone, and occasionally meeting with environmental justice groups as well as business associations.
Through outreach, NJPFD hopes that their proposed policy will address the concerns of low-income communities and communities of color, an enormous motivation for the “dividend” part of the policy. NJPFD’s proposed policy would levy a fee on fossil fuel-based energy in the state. Revenues raised from the fee would then be divvied up and sent back to New Jersey households and businesses in a monthly check. By one model, which places a $40/ton fee on CO2, a household of four would receive $288 every month in 2025, totaling almost $3,500 annually.
This dividend is meant to offset the higher price of energy, especially for low to middle-income households that might struggle with the price hike otherwise. According to Lu, this pricing strategy is not a tax, because the revenue does not go towards the state. Instead, all revenue is redistributed to constituents and clean energy initiatives. NJPFD hopes to incentivize switching to renewable energy sources as a result, while dancing around any language (e.g. “tax”) that would alienate bipartisan support.
Almost every day, the NJPFD email listserv lights up with updates on new projects, meetings, and developments. The group is working on getting relevant “stakeholders,” or representatives from diverse interest groups, into the same room at the end of August 2018 to talk about the pollution fee and dividend policy. Senator Bateman, PSE&G CEO Ralph Izzo, and Assemblymen Zwicker and Roy Freiman (D-16) have all committed to attending such a meeting. In light of this progress, I asked Lu, Copeland, and Eisenhour individually whether they were optimistic about the pollution fee and dividend project. Below are excerpts of their responses:
“I honestly believe that students have a very unique position to play in solving climate change,” Lu said. “As students, we have the resources here, from Pace to the Office of Sustainability. We have the location, we don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting together. We’re connected with professors, who all already have connections with various other groups. We have a lot of energy. And we’re not afraid to dream big.”
“I have become a very cynical person in regards to climate change in general. But I think from the beginning, ideas behind civic engagement, just the concept of developing a force for citizen lobbying, and just seeing that there is this real opportunity to get involved in the political process… All of these things keep me optimistic, counter to the general cynicism I have,” Copeland said.
“I guess I have to be, otherwise there is no way I could justify spending all my time doing this sort of thing,” Eisenhour said. “We don’t have resources, history, funding. We don’t have that. We have students who are dedicated, who have done this incredible thing, or are in the process of doing this incredible thing, and that’s our main asset.”