Why does Annie Leonard hate the environment?

Annie Leonard, creator of the anti-consumerist video The Story of Stuff, has now offered up The Story of Cap and Trade, a video purporting to debunk legislation representing the best hope we have of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The video has already provoked some excellent commentary elsewhere, so I’ll try to limit myself to a few big-picture thoughts in response to the video.

**1. Cap and trade and carbon taxes are functionally equivalent policies.**

The Story of Cap and Trade isn’t actually a brief in favor of carbon taxes, but many of the arguments in the video echo the stale debate over different forms of carbon pricing, and certainly carbon tax advocates have seized on the moment, as they always do.

Partisans on both sides of the carbon pricing debate will try to convince you otherwise, but carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are very similar policies. Both offer a mechanism for putting a price on carbon pollution, and either policy can be customized in countless ways to closely mimic the effects of the other. To be sure, the policies do differ in some meaningful aspects, but these differences cut both ways: each has offsetting advantages and disadvantages. It can be fun for certain obsessive types to debate which theoretical benefits translate into practical advantage, but in the end, one criterion clearly stands above all others: which policy actually stands a chance of passage in the U.S. Congress? On this critical measure, there has never been any contest. Cap-and-trade has a difficult but plausible route to passage. A carbon tax has never had a snowball’s chance, and we’re long past the point when any reasonable observer of U.S. politics can pretend otherwise.

A corollary to the fact that cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are functionally equivalent policies is that either can be implemented well or implemented badly. So it’s worth asking whether the bills currently under consideration merit our support. Real-world legislation is always a hash of difficult compromises, but Waxman-Markey represents a solid platform on which to begin our decades-long journey to a carbon-free economy.

**2. Many of the arguments of cap-and-trade critics rest on confusion or dishonesty or both.**

This might sound a bit blunt, but it’s well past the time that we stop mincing around this point. It was true even years ago when the carbon pricing debate was at its peak: the most voluble carbon tax advocates had a noticeable tendency to take a scorched-earth, show-no-mercy stance towards climate policy. Often they weren’t just out to show that carbon taxes are a superior policy; they also wanted to prove that cap-and-trade is actively harmful. This stance was problematic on two counts: the first is that it’s unsupportable on either practical or theoretical grounds (see above), so it leads to all sorts of hyperbolic or downright false claims; the second is that this sort of argumentation tends to poison the well when it comes time to get actual legislation passed. Why would senators or citizens want to rally around a policy that even some environmentalists claim is worse than useless?

Again, The Story of Cap and Trade isn’t an argument in favor of carbon taxes per se, but it continues in the same tradition, papering over profoundly misguided arguments with innuendo, caricature, and falsehoods. In short, it’s a smear job. I refer you to two excellent pieces of commentary. The first is from David Roberts, who offers a broad response to the central claims of the video (which Roberts describes as “a perfect representation of all the confusion and misplaced focus that plagues the green left right now”). The whole thing is well worth your time, but Roberts’ most important point is that the video mis-characterizes the enemy: the main obstacle to strong climate change legislation is not cap-and-trade but rather the concerted efforts of fossil fuel lobbies and other vested interests to block any progress. These interests exist independently of any particular proposal, and unfortunately they place sharp limits around the bounds of the possible.

The second piece of commentary is from Eric de Place, who offers a scathing point-by-point rebuttal of the video (which he described as “shockingly ill-informed—or maybe outright deceptive”). One thing de Place brings to the argument is an appropriate sense of anger:

> All these years that tens of thousands of folks like me have worked long hours at low pay (or no pay) to hash out a workable and effective climate policy and it turns out that our purported allies like Leonard would rather paint us as duplicitious bankers in pin-striped suits.

The catalog of errors is too long to reproduce here. Perhaps my favorite for sheer chutzpah, if not for actual importance, is when Leonard dings Kyoto because “energy costs jumped for consumers.” Does Leonard have a solution to climate change that doesn’t raise energy costs? Of course not, because no such solution — whether cap-and-trade, tax, or regulation — exists. Studies show that reducing carbon emissions will not place an undue economic burden on citizens, but the underlying issue of profligate fossil fuel use can’t possibly be addressed if energy prices remain unchanged.

**3. The ‘Story of Cap and Trade’ is an attack on environmentalists.**

Remember, attacking environmentalists always pays. The arguments advanced in The Story of Cap and Trade appeal to a lot of people because they appear to paint Wall Street as the villain. Don’t be fooled.

A few years ago, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger discovered a winning formula: trash environmentalists while professing concern for environmental issues, and ride the ensuing controversy to glory. More recently, the Freakonomics guys pulled the exact same trick. Now, in a neat piece of jujitsu, Annie Leonard manages this feat while appearing to take aim at a nebulous financial conspiracy.

The formula is always the same: 1) start with some legitimate questions or concerns about an environmental problem or initiative; 2) arrive at a contrarian conclusion by ignoring massive amounts of evidence and expert opinion; 3) loudly tout your own victimhood.

Here’s Daphne Wysham, a content advisor to The Story of Cap and Trade, describing why she felt that this precise moment — when the U.S. is for the first time on the cusp of passing a climate change bill and the world is gathering in Denmark to discuss a shared path forward — was the appropriate time to launch a broadside against all the hard-won progress made to date:

> [Our] principles were dismissed by some of our erstwhile allies as wildly unrealistic, and we were all told to stand in line instead behind the big boys and accept a bill introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

That’s right, the “big boys” are to blame. According to Wysham, the tradeoffs embedded in the current climate change legislation are not the result of vested interests, but of a weak-kneed or corrupt environmental establishment. Henry Waxman is not a skilled legislator and environmental hero, but a compromised sell-out. Cap-and-trade is not a policy devised by environmentalists and proven successful in the U.S. and Europe, but an evil scheme cooked up by investment bankers.

This stuff is childish, if not downright delusional. It’s also dangerous. Environmentalists do in fact need to continue to push for stronger climate change legislation, and the bills before congress are certainly not perfect (as no bill ever can be). But self-aggrandizing just-so stories about evil Wall Street conspiracies take the energy of the environmental movement and hurl it in the wrong direction. It’s the perfect gift for those vested in the status quo — just in time for Christmas.

Author Bio



  1. Susan Kraemer - December 7, 2009

    Great, right on.
    I haven’t even looked at it, this kind of ignorance of the horrible history of energy legislative difficulties is just too maddening.
    Right now, we FINALLY have a chance at finally passing a carbon limiting bill/and signing Kyoto/Copenhagen for the first time.
    And Obama is being a master of strategery:
    EPA Wields Timely Stick
    And these noobs pop up to help the bad guys??? ARRRRRGGGghh…

  2. Chris Bowman - December 9, 2009

    I recommend watching The Story of Cap and Trade before taking Mr. Stein’s word for it. As always: Think for yourself.

  3. Anonymous - December 9, 2009

    “and Obama is being a master of strategery”?
    really, you belive this?
    as said before learn to think and research yourself.

  4. Ron - December 9, 2009

    Thank you for your clear and needed appeal for unity and leadership on cap and trade. we are at a key turning point, and cap and trade must be the legislative mechanism we in the U.S. get behind in force. Let’s all pull together now and support a strong cap and trade system in the U.S. We know this can and will work.

  5. Phil Morton - December 9, 2009

    What a tendentious story. I would hardly claim that Annie Leonard hates the environment.
    It’s disingenuous to claim that cap

  6. Jensen - December 9, 2009

    In the interest of full disclose, I would highly suggest that Adam Stein preface his comments with a statement that acknowledges that he is responding to a piece that directly attacks TerraPass’s industry. Let’s see all the players on the field clearly.

  7. Adam Stein - December 9, 2009

    Full disclosure? This is a carbon offsetting web site. What further disclosure is needed here?
    More generally, these attempts to find a personal motive in an argument are always a bit sad. Here’s my motive: I’m extremely worried about the odds of any climate change legislation making it through this or the next congress, and clueless attacks from environmental culture warriors who hate Wall Street are really not helping the cause. That’s it. If a carbon tax had passed the house and was now making its way through the senate, I’d be defending that bill instead. To be honest, I wasn’t going to write about this topic at all, because it just raises my blood pressure, but someone sent me an email asking for an opinion, so I figured there must be some reader interest. The end.
    And whatever evil motives lurk in my heart, the arguments stand regardless. Does anyone want to try to defend the video on the merits? I’ve got plenty more posts on this topic coming, so let’s have it all out.

  8. Jensen - December 9, 2009

    I was not attempting to imply what are you are defending yourself from. I just think that a simple statement at the top of the piece that states your affiliation (it’s not immediately clear what your position is with the company, for example) would lend more credibility to what your write. This is a very sticky issue with regards to offsetting, so it would be nice in a piece where you attack the video you could also address what it says about carbon offsetting. I am not disagreeing with your stance (I really haven’t made up my mind yet about all of this), but I think mapping out the true lay of the land in regards to how all of this affects your company will boost the credibility of your response.

  9. Jonathan Katz - December 9, 2009

    Annie Leonard gets it right. Once again the “lobby” of right thinking enviros gets disturbed when the fundamental problems with their fat and sloppy lifestyle are questioned. Yippie- lets fly off to Mexico for Christmas- just buy some offsets from Terra Pass. And by all means, don’t measure your own carbon footprint- it just might show how much talking and how little walking you are doing.
    Cap & Trade is essentially a strategy that will allow us to continue with a profligate lifestyle wherein a small percentage of the worlds population will consume most of the resources, holding to a firm belief in the powers of technology (and business) to always find a “better” fix so we can keep on with the good life.
    Since the onset of the current economic crisis caused by shift of housing values into financial derivatives, their has been a sign on my bulletin board: Cap & Trade- Wall Street’s Next Bubble.

  10. Gay - December 9, 2009

    You may have just lost a TerraPass supporter on this one. Suggesting Annie Leonard hates environmentalists is ludicrous!!!

  11. Adam Stein - December 9, 2009

    I’d like to stress again that my piece isn’t a detailed rebuttal of the video. For that, you should click through to the articles from David Roberts and Eric de Place, both of whom discuss about the question of offsets. Both pieces are thorough and extremely well-argued.
    Annie Leonard’s video doesn’t affect my company at all, except maybe in the very incidental sense that it may retard environmental progress. I wrote this article as an expression of my personal opinion that the video represents a troubling and somewhat rancid strain of thought in the environmental movement (see comment 9).
    The environmental movement doesn’t wield much political power in the U.S. There are a number of reasons for this, but the tendency to indulge in angry culture war politics (see comment 9) doesn’t help. I wouldn’t say that this is the biggest hurdle the movement faces, but it’s certainly not a help.

  12. Adam Stein - December 9, 2009

    The headline is meant to be facetious. “Why is Annie Leonard actively working to undermine environmental progress?” isn’t as catchy.
    Speaking of which, why is Annie Leonard actively working to undermine environmental progress? Has anybody watched the video? It’s not even clear what the goal is. I understand that there are some provisions of climate change legislation that she wants strengthened (much like everyone else who cares about this issue), but why frame it as a broad attack on cap and trade? The whole thing seems like a viral marketing effort that went horribly awry.

  13. Darrell Anderson - December 9, 2009

    I found Annie Leonard’s video thought provoking, yet after reading ‘Earth:The Sequel’ by Fred Krupp (President, Environmental Defense Fund) and Miriam Horn, cap and trade, in combination with new technology, is the best hope we’ve got. It’s not perfect. It’s open to distortion and misuse. However,like the current health care debacle, it’s the best that can pass the current political climate so let’s at least move forward. Waiting for the perfect solution will only move us backwards.
    By the way, ‘Earth:The Sequel’ is one of the most hopeful books I’ve read and would recommend it.

  14. Adam Stein - December 9, 2009

    Shameless self-promotion: review of “Earth: The Sequel” here and interview with Fred Krupp here.

  15. Garrett - December 9, 2009

    Her video lost me with the childish, simplistic cartoon format and when she blamed Goldman Sachs for the housing bubble. The housing bubble was due to a change in regulatory law that allowed those previously unqualified for a mortgage to get one, buy a house they couldn’t afford, and then default on ARMs and other mortgage scams. Just because Goldman made money off of these loans does not make them responsible.
    Her solutions are pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams that at this point have no possibility of becoming law. I agree with Adam, if we want to see change soon we have to pass something that might work, can be improved on, that we can learn lessons from. If it creates another market that makes money for some, so what- and besides that can just create more pressure to reduce carbon. And if ‘we the people’ can track and ensure solid oversight of the process (more likely than her ‘we the people’ solutions) while learning lessons from Europe, then all the better.

  16. Lisa - December 9, 2009

    It’s no wonder that even well-meaning citizens turn their backs on these issues. It’d be much easier to become a full-blown expert on the game of football than to wade through these arguments and really have a confident opinion on what is the “right” path to take.
    This frustrating debate just reinforces for me that I need to focus on my own little life and on the changes I can make in it. I only hope the “powers that be” truly have our best interests at heart this time – and the track record of those “powers”, sadly, doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. If cap and trade is the best we can now do, I sure hope you’re right about it, Adam!

  17. Adam Stein - December 9, 2009

    Lisa, I sympathize. I do think citizens have an obligation to demand action from their legislators, but there’s a limit to how much control we can have over the precise nuances of legislation. (How many of us can name three bills that came out of congress last year?)
    One other thing: I am definitely not arguing that the current legislation is the best we will ever do. Rather, as a matter of strategy, passing a decent bill now and improving it over time makes far more sense than sabotaging this bill and hoping for something better three years from now.

  18. got mercury? - December 9, 2009

    I don’t know. I have been following the goings on with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (Northeast states’ cap and trade). The money collected from the auction of allowances goes to the utilities who are to implement conservation measures for their customers. This actually decreases the IOUs’ revenues and brings about increases in distribution tariffs. Withouth decoupling the customers pay twice for carbon, once with increrased generation rates and then again with increased distribution rates. The whole thing has to be thought out better. I have not even gotten into allowance monies going to towns that don’t know what they’re doing and to pay for local tax decreases usually paid by coal generators.
    The potantial for scamming cap and trade is just infinite!

  19. Jonak - December 9, 2009

    We need both – cap and trade for the longer term, and a carbon tax now. Starting with gasoline. Followed up by coal fired power generation – 40% of US electricity, 80% of emissions due to power generation.
    Whereas cap and trade removes a direct link between prices the consumer sees and government (which makes it seem less like a tax, I suppose), it will take years to ramp up to meaningful cuts in CO2.
    Carbon taxes could be implemented almost immediately if government were brave enought to do the right thing. Sadly they’re not, so we lose years waiting for cap and trade to have an effect.
    Permanent and significant changes to consumption of fossil fuels will only come if the price to consumers rises significantly. We do all understand that, right?

  20. Amy P - December 9, 2009

    I don’t think she meant Goldman Sachs was solely responsible for the housing market crash, but it was mostly due to PREDATORY LENDING PRACTICES by MAJOR MORTGAGE BROKERS AND BANKERS who got together and made up news ways of selling paper to create profit. I too, fear that cap and trade policies may end up with a similar scenario.

  21. Adam Stein - December 10, 2009

    This isn’t a scam, and it has nothing to do with cap and trade. RGGI auctions 100% of allowances, which is the best way to allocate carbon permits. The auction raises a bunch of money — just as a carbon tax would — which the states can then do with what they want.
    What they’ve decided to do in this case is put the money towards energy efficiency programs. Perhaps they’ve done so in a stupid manner — I’m completely unfamiliar with the issues you raise — but that downstream spending has nothing whatsoever the effectiveness of the cap and trade program, and certainly no one is getting scammed.

  22. Susan Kraemer - December 10, 2009

    I write about policy and renewable energy at cleantechnica, and I have followed environmental policy and its effectiveness for a long time, and interviewed the designer of our cap and trade (to see why if it matters to give away free allowances), and read through studies on whether it has worked in Europe, and I am convinced that cap and trade is the way to go.
    Rather than go into all the reasons I am for it, may I refer you to this piece I wrote there, because it includes links at the bottom to several pieces I’ve done that cover those cap and trade issues and fears, (many of which I think are fear-mongered into being by the fossil lobby, which is now pretending they want to change course and go back to a carbon tax, which is how they first attacked Al Gore (when he started the BTU tax in 1993))
    Krugman wrote a great piece on cap and trade after Hansen came out against it:
    I think we are all for a feebate system: fees to pollute that pay for the funding for rebates to clean up. Cap and trade does that. But, after our econo-apocalypse it is raising fears about financial manipulation that endanger our ability to get legislation passed.
    Also ACES House/CEJAPA in the Senate is not just cap and trade, it also does other good things like make the RPS nationwide to get more renewable energy.

  23. Pete - December 10, 2009

    Who do you think used all available lobbying muscle to change the regulatory laws so they could make a buck?

  24. got mercury? - December 10, 2009

    Of course RGGI is not a scam. What is not working properly in RGGI is the mechanism for installing efficiency with the money from the sale of allownaces. The machanism relies on Investor Owner Utilities, whose profit motive is to mximize revenues from the sale of kWhr, to do away with power demand. This is the central aspect of RGGI that was not worked out before the auction of allownces. If no new business model was not worked out with the IOUs in this case, then how can we expect the national implementation of cap-and-trade to be any better.
    Before any cap-and-trade program can go in place we should decouple all of the transmission and distribution companies from revenues based on the sale of electricity. That or nationalize them.

  25. Jonathan Chen - December 11, 2009

    Just to clarify this issue if I may.
    Adam states thats “Cap and trade and carbon taxes are functionally equivalent policies.” A few of you have suggested that he is incorrect in stating this. First year economics will indeed demonstrate that the above statement is true. They may not be exactly the same, but they are functionally equivalent and, with little tweaks towards an equilibirum price on carbon as you go forward, can be made to be virtually identical.

  26. Susan Kraemer - December 11, 2009

    I am with Adam. They can be made the same, but it takes time. Which we do not have.
    My pref for cap and trade (within the larger cejapa bill) is that about ten years of policy design has already gone into it – it is ready to sign. It has all the attachments you need to make it work. Utility decoupling, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, etc.
    Starting over with carbon tax would take a while to mangle into the same shape – (ie ensuring utilities don’t and can’t just pass down costs for example).
    Given the pendulum swings of American politics could take longer than you think to line up ready in time under another future Dem/Dem congress, which ANY BILL must have in order to pass.
    Just because the fossil industry is pushing a carbon tax instead, don’t think that’s to speed it up. They know it takes time to rework bills to meet humane non-fossil-party standards again. A carbon tax with no protections would have rural Motel 6 housekeepers unable to get to work. But Mr and Mrs Exxon could pay whatever it takes to jet to private islands right up till the last ones sink.

  27. Jonathan Katz - December 11, 2009

    Saying that C & T and a Carbon Tax are functional equivalents is like saying Nuclear Energy and Solar Energy are functional equivalents. Beyond th use of “functional equivalent” as a straw-man to mask the real choices, the key difference between Cap & Trade and a Carbon Tax, as any economist could tell you, is the matter of efficiency. There is lots of noise in the C&T process, in terms of transaction costs, a good deal of which are enterprise costs and profits for the traders.

  28. triniagearl - December 11, 2009

    Truthful words, some unadulterated words dude. Thanks for making my day!!

  29. Susan Kraemer - December 12, 2009

    To both Jonathans re Economists: Here’s Krugman on this issue
    December 7, 2009, 10:45 am
    Unhelpful Hansen
    “James Hansen is a great climate scientist. He was the first to warn about the climate crisis; I take what he says about coal, in particular, very seriously.
    Unfortunately, while I defer to him on all matters climate, today

  30. Maurice Belanger - December 12, 2009

    Interesting debate. I work on another issue where there are similar dynamics. For some, the bill being considered is never good enough, and those who support a compromise are selling out. To get a bill through Congress, though, you need more than good ideas. You need good ideas and a plan to get 60 votes in the Senate.

  31. Evangelos Koumentakos - December 15, 2009

    Yes in deed, I would agree that this isn

  32. Evangelos koumentakos - December 21, 2009

    I agree. We are very happy to see US making steps towards Universal health bill. After Copenhagen and before Mexico I caught myself being angry and disappointed versus US. I now understand that “unfortunately” in the Western world we have democracy and for that it is much harder to find ways to express our disagreement, to channel all that energy young people have in order to change something.In politics the stock market is more subtle.Many think in terms of “No” when sometimes it is better to think “why not”. While we can trace a positive value almost everywhere, out limited time on this earth makes it really hard to make the deal NOW so that our grandchildren will face a mitigated catastrophe in 100 years from now.Great things happen simply.No trumpets singing from heavens, no lacerating skies.Has anyone though of the value of all the environment discussions, all the food security and GMOs discussions, have you heard lately the term “third world”-not to mention the “fourth world”. What will be of this debate after 200 years?Who changes faster?The Earth or our way of thinking?…small steps…little by little..Humans are forever born toddlers with a centenarian’s brain.When we will be in love with the earth, only then we will be able to act.[sorry at the webmasters for the delirium but when the economic numbers get too high…I get a little…dizzy:-]