The discussion over climate change legislation rolls on, with Senators John Kerry (MA-D) and Lindsey Graham (SC-R) presenting a timely op-ed in this past Saturday’s New York Times. Despite the mountain of rhetoric surrounding the issue, the phrase “cap and trade” has been decidedly—and intentionally—absent from the debate. Instead, Democrats have moved to “pollution reduction and investment” or PRI.
According to the Associated Press, the idea was Kerry’s, to give cap and trade a makeover and refocus attention on what a climate change law could potentially accomplish. Kerry’s been widely cited as saying that cap and trade “means nothing to people” and that PRI “is an actual description of what’s happening.”
But does changing the language actually accomplish anything?
Kerry’s Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act—which he co-sponsored with California’s Barbara Boxer—still limits the amount of polluting gases that power plants, refineries and factories are allowed to emit (cap). And once these companies hit their max, they can still buy permits to meet the requirements (trade). “The central element,” Kerry and Graham wrote in The Times, “is the establishment of a floor and a ceiling for the cost of emission allowances.”
The phraseology shift could actually make a difference, according to non-profit ecoAmerica. Its April 2009 report about how to best communicate environmental issues states, “‘Cap and trade’ is unfamiliar to voters and support is relatively weak when voters are presented with a brief description.” In surveys about what cap and trade should be called, “clean energy dividend” scored highest, followed by “clean energy cash back,” “pollution penalty,” and “pollution reduction refund.” “Cap and trade” itself tested the worst.
Language shifts can help more than just “cap and trade.” Rather than “global warming” or “climate crisis,” use the phrase “deteriorating atmosphere,” ecoAmerica suggests. Don’t debate weather (everyone has an explanation) and stay away from science or specific policies (many sides to scientific debates and policies prompt more questions and arguments than answers).
Though changing a phrase likely won’t ease the struggle Kerry, Boxer and their Senate counterparts face in getting the 60 votes needed to pass this legislation, it could potentially change the temperature of the discourse. And that, at least, is a start.