Jonathan Lu

On an evening in early May, a group of about 20 Ivy League graduates gathered at the Quadrangle Club at Princeton University to hear a computer science student, Jonathan Lu, lay out a plan to tackle global warming while avoiding regulating industry or individuals. The proposal has the support of liberals due to its promise to limit air pollution and greenhouse gasses, and of some conservatives due to its free market approach to attacking climate change.

The idea is the “carbon fee,” and the speaker, a 21-year-old senior, is the founder of the Princeton Student Climate Initiative. And it’s not just a student science project: the group has barely gone public with its idea but already has the ear of state lawmakers. Last year assemblyman Andrew Zwicker asked Lu’s group to write a white paper on the subject, and they have spent most of the time since then researching the proposal. Lu and some of the other students are now putting it forward to various groups.

The group gathered to hear Lu was the Princeton Propellers, an organization created two years ago by the Princeton Area Alumni Association. Billed as being “for entrepreneurs, navigators, and the curious,” (navigators being a euphemism for consultants) it is open to people who are interested in the startup scene. It’s not for the general public, says Barbara F. Graham, the group’s founder. Instead it’s for those who want to hear from leaders in the business and science worlds, and who don’t mind talks that get technical at times.

The group meets on the second Tuesday of each month. At the May 8 meeting, the audience was almost entirely composed of Princeton, Harvard, and MIT graduates.

Why are they called the Propellers? “Because I made up the name, and I wanted a cute name,” says Graham, who herself prefers to go by the nickname BFG. “I like to name things.”

The group is funded by donations by attendees. Because the meetings include alcohol, the group is not allowed to charge admission. “We had to pay for the wine, so I could either rob a bank or take donations,” BFG says. “I went with donations.”

The setting of the meetings, Quadrangle, is one of the university’s 11 undergraduate eating clubs. Its alumni include some big names in the worlds of science and engineering, among them Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the late Princeton engineering professor David Billington. In keeping with this theme, many of the speakers are engineers and scientists. Graham, the widow of attorney Ted Meth (Princeton Class of 1944), was herself the founding editor of Chemical Design Automation News, a trade publication. Graham’s other career pursuits include painting (her first show was held in New York in 2005) and novel writing. She earned a bachelor’s in history at Northwestern University and a master’s in East Asian studies from the University of Michigan. She has studied Mandarin Chinese.

Joe Budelis, a Harvard graduate and computer expert who once operated a commuter airline between Princeton and Nantucket (U.S. 1, February 19, 2014), says he regularly attends the meetings of the Propellers. “Sometimes the topics are extremely interesting to me,” he says, adding that it’s a good place to network with the entrepreneurial community.

The crowd skews older, but there were a few recent graduates in attendance as well, including Alice Eltvedt, an astrophysics major who got a job as a result of attending the meetings. “I was at an alumni meeting and BFG showed up and said I should come to one of these,” she says.

She went, and it proved a good use of her time. “I talked to the lecturer afterwards and realized that a lot of what I studied he used in his company,” Eltvedt says. Now she has a job as a technical specialist at TAG Optics, a Princeton company that specializes in rapid-focusing lenses that were originally developed for astronomy but which since have found industrial applications.

Rick Ober, a lawyer and Princeton graduate (Class of 1965), helps runs the group. He says it’s a good opportunity for contacts to happen between town and gown. One of the more memorable meetings took place in April, 2017, when Will Watts, a regional manager for Tesla, gave a presentation and brought a Model X SUV to show off. Other speakers have included a cryptocurrency entrepreneur and an expert on inspiring children to learn STEM skills.

Lu says he was invited to speak at the Propellers after reaching out to its parent organization, the Princeton Area Alumni Association, about the possibility of publicizing his initiative. “We just jumped at this,” he says.

Lu, who is a computer science major as well as a pre-med student, founded the Princeton Students Climate initiative in January of 2017, taking on the project of saving the environment on top of his course load. “I’ve made an active choice not to have a social life,” he says. “When you’re thinking about something that’s going to affect millions or billions of people’s lives, it’s worth it to take a little hit for the sake of improving those lives.”

It may sound like a grand statement, but Lu hopes that his project can make a real difference. Lu grew up in Fremont, California, the son of an engineer father.

He figures that given the current atmosphere in national politics, the best chance at making real changes lies with the state government, where a sympathetic governor and legislature might actually pass laws to protect the environment.

And according to the ever-growing consensus of scientific research on the subject, tackling greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent project. New Jersey is especially subject to effects like sea level rise, which is projected to displace hundreds of thousands of state residents.

In his presentation, Lu outlined some of the problems with various approaches to limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the current laws aimed at climate change, such as President Obama’s clean power plan, targeted power plants. This makes sense because power plants are easy to regulate: the government can pass an emissions law and force plants to comply with it.

However, only 15 percent of greenhouse gasses actually come from power plants. In New Jersey, 52 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions are generated by transportation, a sector that is very difficult for state regulators to tackle.

A more roundabout way to encourage clean energy use is with subsidies to nuclear, solar, and wind power, which makes those energy sources more viable in the free market against their dirty competitors.

But subsidies and regulation are unpopular with conservatives, who happen to control the entire federal government at the moment. “Our sphere of influence is the state, and if we can show that it works at a state level or even a regional level, it could pave the way for a national policy. States are grounds for experimentation,” Lu says.

What Lu advocates instead is a carbon fee, which is usually described as a carbon tax. The basic idea is that every bit of fossil fuel intended for use in New Jersey, whether it is coal or oil or gas, is hit with a tax by the buyer, who would then pass the costs along to consumers. This would increase the price of gasoline, electricity, and heating oil, encouraging everyone to cut back on using these things and letting individual people and organizations figure out how best to do that.

The majority of the money collected by this tax would be refunded back to households, with homes with children getting an extra amount. The amount of the rebate would not change by household income, or if the consumer used less energy, so people who conserve fossil fuel use would come out ahead financially. The tax would initially add about 26 cents to a gallon of gas, and would increase every year.

“It’s business friendly and technology neutral,” Lu says. “We’re not choosing a winner.”

The carbon tax is not inherently friendly to some businesses, however, since organizations that use a lot of fossil fuels would be impacted especially hard by the cost increases. Transportation, construction, and manufacturing would be especially hard hit. That is why some of the carbon fee revenue would go back to support these industries. Another portion of the revenue would go to building green infrastructure, re-training employees of negatively affected companies, and cleaning up environmental damage: part of what Lu calls a “just transition” to a green economy.

Even with these modifications, proponents of the plan will have to address a few criticisms, which Lu acknowledged. One is that in some ways, the carbon fee can be a regressive tax. Lower income workers who have long commutes tend to drive older vehicles that get bad gas mileage. While the fee and refund system is designed so that overall, lower income households will come out ahead, there are people whose pocketbooks would be hit especially hard by the gas tax increase. Meanwhile, high income earners who can afford expensive electric cars would be able to avoid the worst effects — another case of the poor being unable to afford to save money.

Drivers hell bent on gaming the system could even save money by driving to nearby states in order to avoid the more expensive Jersey gas. Lu’s group studied the costs and benefits of doing this and found that economically, it would be worth it for drivers to drive 70 miles to reach Delaware to fill up on cheap gas there, though the study did not account for the time it would take to make this expedition.

How does all this work out in the real world? No state in the U.S. has tried it — Lu hopes New Jersey can be the first — but it has been tried in Sweden, British Columbia, and the Netherlands. All of these places reduced carbon emissions while avoiding any measurable hit to the economy.

In the previous examples, the scheme was referred to as a “carbon tax.” It morphed into a “carbon fee” in New Jersey partly because the motor fuel tax amendment passed in November, 2016, mandates that all gas taxes go to the transportation fund — this would seem to make a carbon tax illegal in New Jersey. But if it’s a carbon fee instead, it would be fine.

Lu says the proposal is a fee because by definition, taxes are meant to raise revenues, while fees are generally for penalizing an activity or raising money, or are connected directly to an activity. Lu presses the semantic distinction, arguing that “fee” is a more accurate description than “tax.”

Lu’s presentation focused on the economic arguments in favor of the carbon fee, but Lu is actually motivated by the moral dimension of the policy. He is so dedicated to the idea that he chose to attend graduate school at Princeton for another year just so he could continue to lead the initiative.

“I believe each of us has an opportunity to take actions that can lead to different kinds of consequences,” he says. “Some futures are better than other futures, and we each have a choice at any given moment to take actions for the better future and better the wellbeing of everyone in the whole world. I’m really in an outstanding position — a really lucky and privileged position — to do that.”

Propellers, Princeton Area Alumni Association, Quadrangle Club, 33 Prospect Avenue, Princeton. Tuesday, June 12, 6 p.m. “Equipping the Next Generation to Lead Long, Healthy Lives And Cope with the Velocity of Technological Advance” with Aly Cohen and Clay Patterson.

Princeton Student Climate Initiative:

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