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.