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Thinking CAP? Curse Jar? Let X Decide...

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The other day, the Environmental Defense Action Fund opened voting for 'the people's choice' as to the best 30-second video to explain how a Cap & Trade program to control carbon dioxide would help cut the nation's dependence on oil. Putting aside questions as to Environmental Defense's devotion to a CAP uber all, the best video seemed clear: The Thinking Cap. This choice seemed clear, evidently, to many as this video was the runaway victor for EDAF's $1000 "People's Choice" award. (The Climate Activists' Choice Award.) But the experts, the experts had a different perspective. They went with the foul-language oriented Cursing Cap.

My logic stream: in just 30 seconds, Thinking Cap provided a very cogent explanation of the concept behind a CAP and the benefits to accrue, with interesting interplay between images and words to enhance that quick-look understanding.

While Thinking Cap made the top five, it wasn't "the best" for the experts. According to Keith Gaby, the Communications Director of EDF's National Climate Campaign,

there's a difference between being clear to climate activists who are concentrating on videos they've chosen to watch on their computer, and a spot that's effective with Americans far less familiar with the topic. For them, it will be one of many commercials flying by on TV, only a handful of which will really capture their attention. In other words, we think Thinking Cap might work best for those who are already paying attention and care about this issue.

An interesting issue: are the voters too expert? "Are the voters wrong?"

The video we chose, Cursing Cap, had two qualities that really stood out to us. First, it immediately captures the attention of even the most casual viewer because it begins with a close-up of a man cursing (bleeped out, of course). Second, it employs an ingenious analogy to explain the carbon cap: the character in the ad says he made himself pay a dollar every time he cursed, in an effort to cut down. And that caused him to think up new, cleaner ways to express his frustrations -- like "Walrus breath!" We think an analogy like that is a vivid and memorable way to explain a cap and might even get it stuck the minds of those we need to reach.

This is one of those classic challenges in framing and discussion: how to get the message across in a meaningful and convincing manner. And, in a way that doesn't descend into deceptive truthiness...

Rewatching the videos, I continue to disagree with the "expert opinion". However, unlike the differentiation between a award-winning film grossing next-to-nothing and pablum topping ticket sales, perhaps I'll take comfort that "the experts" tell me that I and 100s of others are wrong because we're "too expert", too knowledgeable.

From 'video' and PR to substance?

While the contest videos are quite inventive, there are fundamental questions to ask and consider.

Linking to oil: This video contest began in 'better days', with $140 barrel oil and before the utter collapse of trust in the financial system. For 'framing' issues, the contest focused on "oil". Just how much, however, will a "CAP" drive down oil use, directly affecting our oil imports?

Americans burn most oil in our cars (SUVs, trucks, airplanes, etc ...). In the past few years, we've seen gasoline prices gyrate from $1.50 or so to over $4 back down to the $1.60 range (now a little higher). Miles driven and gasoline consumption dropped, even meaningfully (about a million barrels / day). But, how much would a CAP add to the price of oil? A few cents? Tens of cents? This price would have an impact on gasoline purchase, but how much? Even a few percent? Hard to see, at least in the near-term, that a Cap system would have a tangible impact on oil use due to its pricing mechanism. (Note: I do not think that some form of carbon pricing is irrelevant to oil use and wouldn't help change course on oil use, but do not think that this is the primary impact zone nor that the reduced demand for oil based on a CAP would have a significant impact on US carbon emissions.)

One of the items that I like in Thinking Cap is when, at the end of the video, the "light bulb" on top of the cap is switched out from an incandescent to a compact fluorescent. Nice, easy to hold to image of the reality and, often, ease of energy efficiency and other changes that can start the process of driving down our carbon emissions. To be clear, changing a lightbulb won't stop climate change, we shouldn't fool ourselves, but the imagery works (for me, at least, if not "the experts"). The problem: oil represents less than two percent of the generation of US electricity and that use is only a trivial element in overall US oil use. Eliminate the use of fossil fuels (especially coal) for electricity (via energy efficiency and introduction of renewable energy) and that will have a major impact on US carbon emissions. It will not, however, have any meaningful impact on oil imports.

Thus, the focus on oil seems misleading and sending the wrong message.

Is a Cap where we should focus our energy? Environmental Defense is one of the strongest environmental organization voices in favor of a Cap and Trade system (to the extent that some of us see this a 'in favor of a Cap and Trade of any level, at any cost). They showed, with their strong support for the Lieberman-Warner Coal Subsidy Act, that the priority on getting a Cap in place could lead to one that is too weak to have a serious impact. They have, to paraphrase, a fundamental belief that (a) a carbon cap is the most important tool, (b) that it can be gradually improved once put into place, and (c) thus any Cap (no matter its weaknesses, no matter its loopholes, no matter its subsidies to polluting industries, no matter its economic inequalities) is better than none. If it isn't clear, this 'cap uber all', at any price, is one that I find misguided, fundamentally flawed, and a path to ensuring that we do not take the necessary actions to mitigate global warming.

This does not, however, mean that a "Carbon Cap" is necessarily an evil thing. If we're to price carbon, a step that seems inevitable (eventually) to help drive necessary economic and societal shifts, there are two routes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Very simply, the shorthand:

  • A Cap (or Cap Auction Trade (CAT)) provides certainty (of some sort) as to the level of emissions (the maximum) and no certainty as to revenue streams.
  • A Carbon Tax (or Fee) provides some certainty as to financing, but not necessarily assurance as to reduced levels.

To be clear, both can be gamed and manipulated (anyone want to suggest that tax law works without problems or that financiers haven't figured out many methods to confuse 'trading' regimes/controls). The serious challenge in the near term is the difficulty of imaging the political momentum to drive a meaningful CAP/CAT or high-enough tax/fee to have a meaningful impact, especially since there will be leakage and cheating on no matter what path legislation might take.

Thus, for the moment, a Trojan Horse strategy seems a much more valuable place for attention and effort. let us get as much "green" infrastructure, science, reforestration, and other elements that will have a real impact on reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as possible into this (and the next ... and the next) stimulus package. (Stimulate US green!) Let us (US) make real progress at reversing our emissions through energy efficiency, electrification of rail, introduction of clean energy, etc ... And, as we do so at a net positive for the economy, more people (including (especially) in Congress) will see the real benefits in how the United States can make some serious green by going Green. Progress in cutting emissions and strengthening (firming up) the economy via energy efficiency, better agricultural practices, and renewable energy will help foster an environment that might enable a meaningful CAP or tangible fee that would help hasten the path toward a prosperous, climate-friendly society.

NOTE: From that earlier discussion re the video contest, the two 'winners':

Cursing Cap
Male:
BLEEP!
I used to curse all the time. It was pretty foul.

So, I capped it. And if I cursed, I paid.

Till I got smart... Thought up alternatives: WALRUS BREATH!

Tap the imagination.

This jar ain't a bad system!

Let's say we cap carbon emissions dumped into the environment... Companies will have to pay for all the carbon they emit. They'll get smart too, think up alternatives like wind and solar power.

It's the way to kick America's oil habit.

Cap it, and you'll tap it.

Thinking Cap

Male Voice:
Every year we send billions overseas for oil to satisfy our energy dependence.

So how do we solve our addiction?

A carbon cap obligates companies to pay for the carbon they emit.

When they pollute less, they save money.

A carbon cap is really... a thinking cap: It provides financial incentive for companies to think of innovations and invest in clean energy.

It breaks the cycle of dependence, boosts our economy, and helps protect the environment.

A carbon cap... It's really a thinking cap... For the 21st Century.

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