How to communicate a good idea: carbon pricing
Earlier this month, the Canadian Ecofiscal Commission, an independently financed panel of economists aided by a cross-partisan advisory group (of which I am a member), was launched. Its mission is to recommend policies and actions to integrate economic development and environmental conservation, harnessing markets and fiscal policy.
The “good idea” the commission seeks to advance – and that I wholeheartedly support – is that for any economic activity, especially the production of energy, we should identify its negative environmental impacts, devise measures to avoid, mitigate or adapt to those impacts, and include the costs of those measures in the price of the product. It’s the idea behind using carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water pricing to conserve water, garbage pricing to deal with waste, and road pricing to reduce traffic congestion.
It’s also an idea that has been very poorly communicated to the public, especially by climate-change worriers and carbon-tax advocates. Here are a few suggestions for improving such communications.
1. Avoid using the word “tax” in conjunction with pricing pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.
Economists in this context use the word “tax” to mean internalizing the costs of “externalities,” such as environmental costs, in a product price. But the public understanding of a tax is government constantly reaching into their pockets to fund services, programs and bureaucracy. Proposals accompanied by more taxes are invariably greeted with hostility, not acceptance.
2. Ask, “Out of whose mouth will our message be most credible?”
No matter the issue, the answer to a politician these days is, “Not yours.” A public-opinion survey recently released by Ryerson University put politicians, political staff and lobbyists at the very bottom of the public trust scale.
Scientists, such as those on the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, are seen as much more credible than politicians on environmental issues. However, that panel’s public credibility is probably hurt more than it’s helped by its affiliation with the UN, which tends to substitute endless discussion for action.
Most importantly, if scientists and academics are to be credible voices for economy-environment integration, their presentations need to be much more “receiver oriented” – employing concepts and language readily understandable by public audiences, rather than academic ones.
3. In selling an unfamiliar concept or policy solution, start where the public’s head is, not where yours is.
“Think global, act local,” many environmentalists say. But few Canadians get up in the morning thinking globally; local thinking guides local action. Better to say, “Think local, act local” – and if enough do, it will add up to support for national and global action.
In broaching climate change with the public, don’t start by making scientific declarations to people who rarely read or think about science. Far better to start with the climate change effects our audience is already aware of, particularly in resource-producing areas, and then present the science to help explain. For example, start with British Columbia loggers’ awareness that winters are no longer cold enough to kill the pine beetle, or Alberta drill crews’ awareness that it’s taking longer for muskeg to freeze and allow drilling each fall.
4. Be honest about the ultimate costs to consumers.
“Make the polluters pay” is a slogan most people agree with, because they think it means someone else will foot the bill. But if environmental protection is integrated into pricing, it’s we consumers who will pay – as well we should, if we truly value environmental protection.
In the short run, it’s possible to make environmental levies “revenue neutral” by reducing income taxes. But in reality, the public is strongly disinclined to believe that any new tax is revenue neutral because they have been hosed so often in the past. (For example, the goods and services tax was supposed to be “revenue neutral” with the old manufacturer’s sales tax that it replaced, but it is not.)
5. Be balanced – Canadians love balance.
If energy producers have to provide environmental impact statements, proponents of environmental protection measures should have to produce economic and consumer impact statements.
If carbon levies are instituted for petroleum producers, reservoir levies should be instituted for hydro producers, radiation levies for nuclear producers and the corresponding levies for wind and solar producers, since no energy source is environmentally neutral.
And finally, balance the focus on securing “greener supply” with equal attention to constraining consumer demand – a constraint achievable in part by moral suasion, but more effectively by incorporating environmental measures into the prices of the goods and services we consume.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on November 19, 2014