Although there is some good news about growing levels of renewable and energy efficiency worldwide, we still need a much more vigorous climate change response, especially in the U.S. Right now California and the American West are looking down the barrel of a devastating drought with no end in sight. Methane sinks from Alaska to Siberia are thawing, off-gassing their intensely polluting contents. There is even worrisome evidence that sea water in the North Atlantic is being diluted by glacial meltwater in ways that could shut down the Gulf Stream, leading to dangerous climate effects. Here at home we have a climate-shock denying Congress, and states that are forbidding staff to say the words “climate change.” Out in the grass roots, we have disbelief in science and fear of being socially ostracized by conservative communities if a member says he or she believes in climate change. At rock bottom it’s all about “future shock,” a concept worth reviewing now. That phrase comes from a 1970 Alvin Toffler book of that name, which seems even more prescient now than when it first appeared. Confronting and responding to both the actual climate effects and today’s climate deniers does seem like a tall order. But we can do more to empower those who want to speed up the pace of change. To begin with, we can do a better job of framing simple “first aid” solutions in a truly mainstream way. That’s just survival tactics now.
Of course it’s necessary to try a lot of different things when facing a complex systems problem on the scale of global climate change. Today I’m just going to focus on better framing for the simplest, most easily understood “climate shock” answer: the so-called “carbon fee and dividend” measure. It would make fossil fuel providers pay a fee for selling the public dirty, dangerous stuff to dump into our common human birthright—the air we all breathe. Because the fossil fuel industry will raise its prices to cover the fee, it will get passed on to the public as higher fuel prices. That’s where the “dividend” part comes in. Funds collected from the fossil fuel industry fee would be set aside in a special trust fund. All of the money would then be returned in equal shares directly to the public (not by less visible tax credits etc.), the same amount for each citizen, to make up for their having to be the ones actually taking the price hit for fighting climate change. (For more details about the “fee & dividend” proposal, please consult The Citizens’ Climate Lobby website).
But calling the money returned to American citizens a “dividend” creates an unnecessary obstacle to easy public comprehension of the proposal.(1) Why? The average American doesn’t get any kind of dividends. That’s a 1% word, unfortunately. But everyone understands “rebates” if you are paying too high a price for something. So why are CCL and others using the word “dividend?” To the best of my knowledge, the reason is that there is a very worthy, but still conceptually abstract effort underway to help the public understand that the air we breathe is our common human property, that we have rights to it by virtue of our very birth on this planet. In fact, say those promoting “dividend” language, we the people of Earth could be said to own the air, and so we should get paid “dividends” for its use or abuse. A model for this type of trust fund with dividends does exist: it’s the Alaska Permanent Fund, based on the oil reserves found in the state of Alaska. And every qualified Alaska state resident does get a dividend each year from oil sales. But there is a big leap from oil reserves everyone knows about, and grasping that we the citizens of Earth own the atmosphere.
Principal among those promoting this dividend idea is Peter Barnes, who is, as far as I know, the inventor of this way of describing financial benefits derived from making corporations pay to use our air as a toxic dump. Peter is both a friend of mine and a thinker I greatly respect. His latest book, entitled Liberty and Dividends for All is an important and ambitious work, laying out a proposal that would address the jobless economy of our present and future, the dangerous decline of our middle class, the threat of climate shock, and the need to preserve liberty by using market-based solutions to our problems. As he himself says, it is a visionary proposal, but he believes there may come a time when it’s a vision we will understand we really need, the only solution that can save us. It’s very good to have it on the shelf, waiting for its time to come.
But trying to educate the public into understanding that we own the air we breathe by using a word like “dividend,” which requires a lot of conceptual background to grasp in that context, is not the way to get to safety fast. Nor can it do the hard work of gradually bringing the public into that conceptual loop by itself. Better to start the work of educating the public about their common ownership by getting their attention first with an idea they already understand, “rebate.” We can use that word to bring up the idea of our common “ownership” just as I did above by explaining that “we should get a rebate because the fossil fuel industries ought to be the ones who pay for polluting our common human birthright—the air we all breathe. After all, they block the shift we need to clean energy in every way they can, and sop up taxpayer dollars in public subsidies they don’t need too.” Rights are also more easily grasped by Americans than ownership of something as abstract and unfamiliar as the air. (Case in point: the growing power of the community rights movement.) Once the idea that the air is our common birthright is well understood, it might be time to move on to using Mr. Barnes’ trust and “dividend” language and other proposals. (Full disclosure: Mr. Barnes favors a “cap and dividend” model, in which the cap would involve permits to pollute being sold, not given away free as they are today.)
So for right now, please say “fee and rebate,” not “fee and dividend.” You can’t make a framing word work for the public, including our legislators, unless the ideas and realities it is supposed to evoke are already well embedded in people’s minds. That’s just Cognitive Science 101. We need to get to climate safety fast now, and to do that, we need to use framing language that works fast too.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
l. Getting from Birthright to Dividends Via Rebate
If finding a market based solution to our climate shock threat is what we need, and if paying dividends on a birthright resource trust created by polluter fees is the ultimate solution, how do we get really there? Looking at the Alaska Permanent Fund example, it is easy to see how it seemed logical to the people of Alaska that the oil under the land under their feet actually belonged to them. It was an extension of their land rights, and they could see with their own eyes how the oil companies were extracting vast oil wealth and taking it all away for themselves.
However, with a resource never before commoditized such as the air we breathe, the idea of a birthright resource is a good first step. Ultimately, markets are about something you have a right to sell or rent or collect damages on because you own it. If it’s your birthright, you own it. (The word has nice biblical resonances too: Esau sold Jacob his, even though Jacob had to use deceit with his father Isaac to get the blessing that went with it.) If someone damages your birthright resource, they owe you. So damage money could go into a “birthright resource trust,” which then pays equal dividends to everyone.
Why not just go ahead and call the damage money a dividend? Why stick in the “rebate” idea now? As I already said in the piece above, the concept of air as a birthright resource we all own is so new and strange for most people that we have to start by introducing it via an already well-known thing, the “rebate.”