Senators Boxer and Sanders are now back on track promoting their Climate Protection Act, and I am happy to note that they describe what companies would pay as a carbon ‘fee,’ not a ‘tax.’ After all, it’s a ‘pay to play’ situation for business, and that is the definition of a ‘fee,’ not a tax. The primary goal of the fee is to raise the price of carbon, not to raise money in the way a tax does. In fact, we’d better not get dependent on funds raised by carbon fees, because in the end we want those fees to become unnecessary as the U.S. moves to a truly sustainable energy economy. And I don’t have to tell my MP Network readers that calling a thing a ‘tax’ means it will be DOA in D.C. We simply cannot afford that kind of framing disaster now.
The bill also specifies that a lot of the money raised by fees will be returned to the public, as energy prices inevitably rise. What to call those returned funds? On this point there has been another very unfortunate, persistent framing error in some sectors of the climate action movement and the media. That mistake has been calling the funds to be returned a ‘dividend.’ That’s a 1% word, friends, and the choice of it is based on a faulty analogy with the situation in Alaska. There, the name for money returned to state residents from selling Alaskan oil is called a ‘dividend.’ This makes sense in Alaska, because the oil is a state resource, and thus the common property of all Alaska residents.
But a federal carbon fee is very different from the sale of oil! The payback to citizens is also very different. It’s about making amends to individual American citizens for the price they will pay for carbon-based energy after the fee is in place. The frame used to describe those ‘amends’ must be something everyone can understand. We can be sure that the climate change deniers will use every hook we unwittingly offer them to sabotage the Climate Protection Act. So what frame do I suggest? I think ‘rebate‘ is a far better choice, because that is a term familiar to the mainstream public. It suggests getting a break on the price of something. That is exactly what the bill means to offer to the public.
So I beg of you, all of you: listen to my warnings and suggestions about framing this bill! Our climate crisis is worsening every day. We must do everything we can to protect our planetary ecosystem, our own species and the other forms of life here. That also means talking about remedies in a way that works for all. Even our hope for peaceful resolution of climate change conflict depends on good framing. Say it wrong, and things will definitely go wrong! Say it the best way, and we might just “save our planet.”
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, 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.