Inspirational women form the sturdy, dirty backbone of Misadventures. Women who have climbed mountains with earth caked under their nails and boots on their feet, traipsing across the country in search of Great Adventure and, ultimately, themselves.
Camila Thorndike’s story might be decidedly less literary, but it’s no less heroic: as the Co-Founder and Director of grassroots campaign Oregon Climate, Thorndike is spearheading a regional movement to fight climate injustice by putting a cap on carbon pollution. At its current deflated price points and open-tap availability, carbon is one of the biggest, baddest villains of our time —and Thorndike is poised to take it on.
“My life is different absolutely every single day,” she says. “I have been organizing on the road for about two years. I don’t really live anywhere…I [have] to think, ‘what’s the sacrifice I can make to actually solve this?’”
Her answer is pushing robust and effective carbon policy all the way to the Oregon Senate, with the help of a coalition of Northwestern volunteers. While the feat received little national media attention, this is the furthest a bill of its kind has ever gotten — making Thorndike an environmental champion in her own right.
Oregon Climate advocates for a “Cap and Dividend” policy, which works like this: the Oregon government puts a cap on carbon and other fossil fuel emissions, forcing energy companies to purchase pollution permits at auction. All of the auction revenue is then funneled back in equal amounts to every Oregonian (the “dividend”). According to Thorndike, while this policy has never been enacted before, many economists have said that Cap and Dividend might be the single most effective solution to climate change.
“Right now, the planet’s melting because polluters can dump their waste into our atmosphere with no consequences – it’s free,” she says. “The costs are socialized when there’s a wildfire, or you move next to a coal plant and your kid gets asthma, or you’re a shellfish farmer and the oceans are too acidic.”
“The fossil fuel industry should be paying those costs of business so they [can’t] maintain a stronghold on the economy by artificially keeping the price of carbon-based energy low,” Thorndike continues.
In her eyes, Oregon Climate is in the right place at the right time. The state has a long-running history of effective climate activism and environmental stewardship, as well as tangible stock in the preservation of its natural landscape, making it the perfect vessel for an innovative policy test drive.
“We don’t know what kind of conservation choice or alternative is the right one for every state, let alone every city, individual, or business,” Thorndike admits. “But if you correct this market failure, then you can start to see investors and consumers shift towards what’s actually good for society.”
Hearing Thorndike speak, it’s clear she has a thick and thorough understanding of the less-than-glamorous bedrock of environmental economics. So it may come as a surprise that the nitty-gritty details were learned on the job after co-founder Dan Golden, an economist and chemical engineer, had planted the Oregon Climate seed.
“It took me a really long time to wrap my head around the economics and political theory, and then sort of shape my activism around that solution instead of shaping a solution around myself,” she says. “Sometimes it really [takes] learning a new discipline and giving new ideas a full, thorough vetting.”
This realization did come after ten-plus years of climate activism, during which Thorndike worked on “every activist project under the sun:” fighting coal plants, installing wind turbines, and promoting water conservation projects. It wasn’t until she had a bout with alopecia, a chronic hair-loss condition, that a loss of confidence forced the overreaching activist to realize her own mortality and reevaluate her place in the climate movement. “It was having my ego beat down, and having the patience to understand what activism should be,” she says.
This humility is a core tenet of Oregon Climate, whose leaders prioritize inspiring good will and passion for the land among locals. Community art projects, the organization’s “special sauce,” allow folks who don’t consider themselves part of the climate movement to reflect on what they love about Oregon and the real threats of pollution. Thorndike likes to sit down with these participants and talk economics over a cup of coffee.
While Thorndike is adamant that a price on carbon, through a cap or fee, is completely necessary for any progress, she believes that a detailed blueprint for how every household, city, state, and country will reduce pollution isn’t necessary right now. “The fossil fuel industry wants to make us think that every climate activist has to have this plan in place before we start. And that’s not true,” says Thorndike. “There’s this downstream way of thinking that puts the burden of the energy transition on individual consumer choices, which will always fail without a comprehensive, upstream solution to cheap fossil fuels. We need to correct that basic imbalance and then the solutions will flow naturally simply by having the right carrots and sticks in place.”
“There’s so many brilliant people out there,” she continues. “Engineers and economists and teachers and designers and inventors…they’re waiting for a reason to redesign the world in a way that’s sustainable. They’re waiting for a price signal.”
That’s Thorndike’s job as an advocate: firing the gun to set the races in motion on this colossal, universal, tough, and precious revolution. Cap and Dividend policy may well be what the country needs to provide enough stability for this generation to engage with democratic action. It’s no small task. But she remains optimistic, embracing the bravest task of all – asking for help.
“We all have five dollars per month that we can spare by, you know, not getting that latte,” she says. “And that really makes a difference for us.”