What the hell is cap-and-trade, and how does it relate to global warming?
Our weekly "Communicating Climate Change" series will examine the challenges involved with writing on climate issues. It will often feature interviews with communicators, like Joe Romm and Andy Revkin.
As was covered here yesterday, President Obama's giant 2011 Budget left blank the amounts of money that might be generated from a cap-and-trade system. This fact was mentioned and written up in a variety of places yesterday, including mainstream news outlets like the New York Times. It's great that this got covered, but generally speaking this coverage misses a huge and difficult step: what the hell is cap-and-trade, and how does it relate to global warming?
If you're writing a climate change-related story for a major media source, most of your audience doesn't speak Warminglish. They don't know what Waxman-Markey or Kerry-Boxer is, they don't care if the emissions target is below 2005 levels or below 1990 levels, and probably glaze over when the words cap-and-trade appear on the page.
I have two points here: first, every story intended for mainstream audiences has to actually explain something like cap-and-trade; second, picking your words when planning any type of policy is enormously important.
To the second and less interesting point first. There has been much debate over the relative merits of a cap-and-trade system vs. a carbon tax (see an interesting take from a number of people over at Yale e360). It has been suggested that the names for the two systems made the outcome a foregone conclusion: no one likes taxes, right? Okay, but with that thought in mind, cap-and-trade could have benefited from a catchier name. How about a carbon market approach, or something like that? People like markets.
Failing to explain the link between climate change and cap-and-trade
No matter what the name, though, climate writers have to learn to explain the admittedly difficult-to-understand connections. Cap-and-trade would progressively lower the ceiling on total emissions of carbon dioxide, making credits to emit the gases more and more valuable and creating a market to buy and sell those credits. It would therefore provide incentives for companies to lower their emissions, and as carbon became more and more expensive to emit it would no longer be desirable to do so. And thus, we start reaching targets set out in Copenhagen and at home that will lower greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully stave off catastrophic global warming.
How did the Times explain it? Like this:
"The president's $3.8 trillion spending plan calls for lawmakers to set up a 'comprehensive market-based climate change policy' that would curb heat-trapping emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, followed by midcentury cuts of more than 80 percent."
HOW? Why does a market-based climate change policy have anything to do with $3.8 trillion in spending? Why are we cutting emissions 17 percent of something or other? To the uninitiated, reading virtually any climate policy-related story must feel like being on the outside of a private joke. None of it really makes any sense.
It seems to me that those skipped steps (I picked on the Times, but they're all pretty much the same, most of the time), even in what is admittedly a budget story and not a climate story, garble the messaging on climate. The confused and often uncaring public won't be swayed by repetition of "cap-and-trade." It needs to be placed in context. Only when the average reader starts to see the connection between a confusing bill being passed around Congress and, say, the Florida Keys being underwater, will public opinion truly start to sway in the right direction.
Follow Dave Levitan on Twitter @davelevitan.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.