Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Caught in the Storm of Cap & Trade

Yesterday, I ragged on cap & trade, and how I was so tired of seeing climate change framed in economic terms, and that it needs to be framed in terms of human institutions and human welfare.

Anyway, I got a comment that I thought was particularly interesting where the author of the comment basically argued that the reason climate change has been framed in economic terms is that people understand "costs" and "taxes" and "incentives."


Because, I have to be honest, I think what most people understand is: how much is this going to currently cost me? How much more money will come out of my paycheck NOW? And for businesses I think it's: what are the short term costs and the short term paybacks?

Basically I think the way we've been arguing climate change is bass-ackwards. Because what we're arguing for is economic incentives/disincentives and then we assume that from THAT, societal change will flow.

But it don't work like that.

Take the sadly demised congestion charge for New York City. There were a lot of problems with the congestion charge, and a lot of specialized interests that caused its death. But one of the problems was simply that policy makers were putting the cart before the horse: the economics before the social change.

If you read this great article by Sarah Bunting, she mentions several societal problems with the congestion charge that weren't addressed by economic means:

1) People like cars & driving.
2) Many people may not technically need to be in their office to do their job, but their place of work might not allow them to work from home.
3) Trains into New York City are already filled to capacity

Now in my mind, the third is the most damning for policy makers. If you're going to charge a congestion tax, I think you have to build the public transit first and make sure it can handle the uptick in volume. But one and two are important to deal with as well.

Now, I don't entirely agree with Bunting's entire assessment. I think had the congestion tax gone through, you would have seen a down tick in people driving into New York City. But the salient point here, for me, is that the congestion tax DID NOT go through. And I would argue that it did not go through because policy makers were trying to deal with something from an economics point of view, and not dealing with the social ramifications.

I could name any number of examples, because environmental policy is rife with them. From carbon taxes to cap and trade to gas taxes at the pump to fees on plastic bags, policies have failed to be widely implemented. Why? Because people don't like 'em. Why don't people like 'em? Because people see it as money out of their pocket for an abstract concept: climate change.

Raise your hand if you know how 2 degrees or 4 degrees of global temperature rising will affect the weather in your hometown. Raise your hand if you have any real conception of what 2-4 degrees of global temperature rising even means.

The truth is, we don't know what a 2-4 degree temperature rise in global temperatures will do. We have some models, and good ideas, but basically, we don't entirely know what for sure will happen. So we're telling people we're going to charge them more to drive their ass to their work when they're already struggling to get by because some scientist at NASA says we need to have only 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. And we expect them to go along with this because ... why now? Because Al Gore said so?

This is NOT working. It's not. And it has not been working for seventeen freaking years now.

So let's stop putting the cart before the horse. Let's stop framing climate change in terms of economics. Let's start framing the environment in terms of improving livelihoods. Let's create a social fabric where people bike to work because it makes them happier, healthier, and also because it's the thing to do. Or where people eat local, organic food because it tastes better. Or where people bring their own bags to the grocery store because everyone looks at you squinchy eyed when you don't. Because fear of society's disapproval is probably more potent than a few cent tax anyway.

Let's stop framing climate change ... actually let's stop calling it freaking climate change. No one understands what that means anyway. How bout instead we call it increased flooding in Amsterdam and Bangladesh, and more fires in Malibu and Australia, and more drought in Sub-Saharan Africa. And then, let's figure out how we are going to address these problems in their localized contexts.

Will it work? I don't know. But what I do know is that the other way isn't working, so, frankly, what have we got to lose?


Stephanie said...


Um, yeah. High five? Exactly. I mean, the only reason why I know this is what works is because that's the reason I am into the environmental change. Because it's better for *me* as well as the environment. SO thanks for saying that so well. :)

belinda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
belinda said...

I have to say I totally agree that what is being communicated right now, and for the last 30 years, isn't working. I have to say I am a little conflicted about the reasoning behind that failure is that it is couched in economic terms. Thus for me the disconnect is actually more fundamental than if it is looked at from a social or an economic point of view.

My major belief is that a large part of the problem is that the environmentalists have generally approached educating the public from the "we will scare them into compliance" pov. As communicators we have thrown away all known theories about how people learn, identify with and integrate information and keep hitting them with "deer in the headlight" levels of fear rather than painting futures for them that empower and seem worth working toward.

I think your strategy is a good step forward but more because it is working from a positive base rather than attempting to scare people into acting. If the positives are economic or social I am not all that sure it matters as long as the stories are connected to a realistic foundation.

Kind Regards

P.S. Feel free to add Australia to the increased flooding list as well... the same day we had the tragic fires in Victoria quite a bit of Queensland was extensively flooded 3 or 4 times in as many weeks.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I think the reason the environmental message isn't getting across is a combination of what you said and too much focus on scare tactics as Belinda said. But it's also that humans tend to have a "how will this benefit me" attitude, so we should be phrasing the message that way...If we increase public transportation and retrofit houses, it will create jobs. If you bike to work and make your house more energy efficient, you will save money. If you buy from local farmers, your local economy will be stable. If we keep toxic chemicals out of the water, you will be healthier...Not all of this has to do with climate change because that's not all I'm concerned about, but hopefully you get my point.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Erin, that's what the whole post was saying. Excellent point Ardie.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Equa Yona - I am not disagreeing with Arduous. I think she makes an eloquent argument, and I absolutely agree. I simply wanted to add my point of view (and maybe I didn't say it well the first time) that if we are going to frame the environment in terms of societal impacts and human welfare, we need to really individualize and localize the argument. Many, many, many people I know do not care if there are fires in Australia. That's so far away! It's sad, but it's also as abstract as "climate change." They only care if there are fires in our town, or at most our state.

So how will it benefit me? Not how will it improve human lives, but how will it improve my life? How will it benefit the individual? Not saying abstract things like,"Better public transit will lower our city's carbon emissions and improve the air quality in our city." But instead focusing on the individual benefits: "Improved public transportation will save you money!" The benefits need to be phrased as individual and local, or we'll lose a big chunk of the audience.

ruchi said...


You're welcome. Glad the post resonated with you. How's Berlin?


I agree with you. Speaking in positive terms is really important as well which is why I (usually) try to do that too. Of course I don't always succeed!!


Yes exactly! It's kind of a marketing issue, isn't it?


Thanks for the compliment!!

Mad Hatter said...

Wow, it's so nice to be reading one of your posts again! How's London and school? I hope to be able to catch up on what I've missed here soon. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree and wrote a long post about it.

The short version is that they don't seem mutually exclusive. Why can't we do cap & trade AND try to change society?

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of you - but I think we need people talking about this from *all* angles.

The major media outlets phrase *everything* in terms of how it will affect profits. But there are people (esp. religious people) talking about climate change in terms of how it will affect people in poor areas.

There are also people talking about our own developed-world kids' quality of life, and the effects of callousness and overconsumption on our own spiritual lives.

And when I first got into this I was drawn in by the evidence of widespread human-caused extinctions.

We need to be going at this on all fronts all the time, if only to counter the pro-fossil-fuels PR machines.

Stephanie said...

Berlin was fantastic. It is definitely a happening city. There are always people around, even at 4am -- tons of people walking around the streets. Unfortunately (fortunately?) I moved to Vienna on Sunday to start classes at the university here. Sigh. School again. Still, Vienna ... WHOA. Everywhere you look there's something amazing to see.

ruchi said...

Will, I'll have to read your post first before I comment, but my short answer is because current cap and trade plans such as the Kyoto Protocol CDM are deeply flawed, often harmful to indigenous people and their rights, and don't seem, in my assessment, likely to produce tangible results in terms of emissions reductions. But let me read your post before I blather on about it. :)

Anonymous said...

I didn't talk much about the Kyoto Protocol specifically in my post. I'm more interested in the cap & trade programs that Obama is proposing (probably because it's closer to home).

The Kyoto Protocol is definitely flawed, although I think it has had good effects some places. I just think that says more about the Kyoto agreement than it does about cap & trade in general.

ruchi said...

Okay, Will, I read your post and I definitely think your points are well taken, and there is some stuff worth discussing. I agree with you that picking on the CDM is a little unfair since Kyoto as a whole was deeply flawed and it is possible that cap & trade could be implemented much better. I'll try and write an expanded post and respond to you soon.