It is impossible to avoid discussions about climate change, yet the policy language fails to connect with most voters despite the ubiquitous nature of those discussions and the rhetorical skill of many participants, including US President Barack Obama. To understand the disconnect, let’s consider the roots of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and its parallels to the contemporary climate change debate.
The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against a clergy that used Latin, a language their flock did not understand, to discuss extraordinary abstract concepts such as the Holy Spirit. It was also a revolt against the church’s sale of indulgences, a practice that finds uneasy parallels in today’s climate change debates.
Today we have policy debates on the appropriate price for a tonne of carbon, and yet most Canadians would not recognize a tonne of carbon if it strolled in their front door and settled down on the couch to watch TV. It’s a meaningless abstraction, and to discuss whether the appropriate price should be $10 or $50 a tonne is equally meaningless to most people. Proposals for cap-and-trade systems therefore have limited public resonance because what is being traded is not understood.
Moreover, such proposals create the impression, and to a degree the reality, that companies can still produce excessive amounts of green house gases as long as they trade their excesses with someone who is more efficient and has credits to burn. They’re like sinners during the time of the Reformation who could buy indulgences from the church and thus be spared eternal damnation. Nice for those who could afford it, but it may have encouraged rather than discouraged sinful behaviour.
The price of sin
The parallel with indulgences also comes into play when firms or individuals purchase carbon offsets. In practice, this means you can still sin as long as you are prepared to pay for it. Thus a rock star is able to fly his entourage around the world while retaining his green credentials by paying for trees to be planted somewhere in the developing world.
We need a better language and policy framework. If consuming fossil fuels poses a threat to the environment, then use carbon taxes as a deterrent, using the new revenues to develop less energy intense forms of resource extraction and consumption.