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Cap-and-trade is dead


You can't pass what you can't say:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid played dumb last week when a reporter asked him if the energy and climate bill headed to the floor would come with a “cap” on greenhouse gas emissions.

“I don’t use that,” the Nevada Democrat replied. “Those words are not in my vocabulary. We’re going to work on pollution.”

One of my rules in politics is that whichever side is resorting to framing devices is losing. In 2004, when Democrats became obsessed with George Lakoff, it's because they felt unpopular and looking for a quick fix. And in 2006, when they took the Congress back, it wasn't because they found a new slogan. It was because the Iraq War and Jack Abramoff had made the Republicans toxic. In 2008, it was exhaustion with George W. Bush and a cratering economy. Post-9/11 frame theory wouldn't have said run the black guy with the name "Hussein."

If cap-and-trade is so unpopular that its primary legislative advocates can't mention it, then it's dead. The BP oil spill offered a chance to change the fundamentals on the issue and Democrats decided against trying to use the disaster as a galvanizing moment for climate legislation. Word games don't offer a similar opportunity.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 19, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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"If cap-and-trade is so unpopular that its primary legislative advocates can't mention it, then it's dead."

GOD lives!

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | July 19, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I understand your rule about framing, and I definitely see its application here, but don't both sides of a debate use framing devices in their arguments to try to sway the course of the debate. Also, in the course of the debate on a big issue it seems like the momentum sways back and forth a lot of times. Healthcare reform was plagued by death panels and socialism when it wasn't popular, but in the end it passed. Democrats talked about Wall Street reform and financial regulation reform, but eventually they passed a bill.

Now, I don't expect Congress to pass a major climate change bill, but I think prognosticating based on some weasel words used at an arbitrary point in the debate isn't why that will happen. It seems like you could build a theory to support just about any conclusion if you based it on select statements of legislators.

I don't disagree with your conclusion, but I think the fact that we're four months away from mid-term elections says way more about the likelihood of a cap & trade bill passing than Harry Reid's word games.

Hell, is *any* big legislation expected to pass between now and the election? Extending unemployment benefits looks like it might squeak by, but that's really not that big of a bill.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

WrongfulDeath, your faith is tied up in whether or not a bill regulating carbon pricing passes the U.S. Senate?

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Your analysis in this case sounds right, but I think you're a little to flip in dismissing framing.

I heard Steny Hoyer on the radio when he was the house whip. Talking about Bush's leadership, he said something like "Bush said we went to Iraq to protect America and get rid of WMDs. That wasn't the case."

It became the perfect example of crappy framing. Despite the meaning of the phrase, the brain hears it at some level as "Bush, Protect, WMDs" - precisely the message that Dems were trying to undermine.

I don't think framing is a *sufficient* political strategy. And in this case, Reid's avoidance isn't really framing, but retreat. But Framing can be really important. Probably the best example: the Republican frame of the 'death tax.' (compare to the Dem's crappy frame of the EITC).

(credit to West Wing for that last example)

Posted by: AronB | July 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

AronB, speaking of the West Wing, discussions of cap & trade always remind me of an episode where either Sam or Will were working with a bunch of, I think, female interns on messaging a cap & trade plan. I can't for the life of me remember the episode title. As ahead of its time as the West Wing has proven to be over the years, it's sad that it's at least ten years ahead of its time on climate change legislation.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Cap and Trade should be dead FOREVER, this is all about setting up a trading market ,trading in AIR.The Chicago Climate Exchange (voluntary for now)is all set up waiting on this legislation to pass, so according to the founder Sandor this will be a 10 trillion dollar a year market.Al Gore a founding partner isn't that an INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Posted by: WARHUKKER | July 19, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

"One of my rules in politics is that whichever side is resorting to framing devices is losing."

I'm fairly certain this is not correct, but it depends on what you mean by framing devices. Each side is ALWAYS engaging in an attempt to shape the debate by quarreling over what terms said debate consists of, and, in turn, what considerations (values, attitudes, etc.) are accessible to voters. I think the post treats framing way too narrowly.

Posted by: y2josh_us | July 19, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Warhukker, there are already markets for exchanging air. I can go down to the party store right now and buy some helium, and if I wanted to advertise something in my window I could buy a sign utilizing neon or one of the other noble gasses. And if I go scuba diving I can get someone to fill my tanks with air to let me breath.

The issue with carbon is that there's not a natural private market for buying carbon emmissions in the way that people want to buy air for their scuba tanks, but climate science shows that there's an externalized cost involved in its emmission. So to incentivize private industry to find ways of doing business that don't involve dumping unlimited amounts of carbon into the world, we need to make it cost something more than zero, which is what it costs now.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

sorry Ezra i'm not buying it.

They said Healthcare was dead too . . ..

They said FinReg was dead . . .

I'm seeing Dems putting it through a lame duck session in the winter.

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 19, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

You're right, it's probably dead. Time to stop wasting time on it and nail down the Clean Air Act. There's still enough time to regulate greenhouse gases, even if it's not in the efficient and market-based way the economists like.

Posted by: NS12345 | July 19, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

visionbrkr, if they can't get their 60th vote now, what makes you think they'll get their 60th vote after the election, when the Republicans likely pick up a couple seats in the Senate?

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"The BP oil spill offered a chance to change the fundamentals on the issue and Democrats decided against trying to use the disaster as a galvanizing moment for climate legislation."

Ezra. Come on. The lack of logic in the above sentence is beneath your standards. Exactly how would an oil spill make people more in favor of "climate" legislation? There is absolutely no connection between the two ideas. If Democrats want to make hay from the oil spill, they should do exactly what they are doing--stop talking about climate change and start talking about the dangers of oil to our economy and health.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | July 19, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

@visionbrkr: "I'm seeing Dems putting it through a lame duck session in the winter."

Or they see this as something at the EPA can implement, in some form or fashion, by fiat. Thus, they don't have to take any political hit.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | July 19, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I actually think the oil spill killed the climate bill (for now). Passing a climate bill rested on a comrpomise that included expanding off shore drilling and nuclear power. Now expansion of off-shore drilling is not viable. So conservatives have no reason to come to the bargaining table. The oil spill might be a rallying cry for liberals to pass a bill, but liberals were pretty rallied up already.

Posted by: Levijohn | July 19, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse


but those seats won't be occupied (if they are) by republicans until into Jan. that gives the Dems plenty of time to get the 60th votes needed for either this or immigration reform.


oh they'll take the hit. The conservative media wouldn't allow them not to take the hit!

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 19, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

nathanlindquist, we currently rely heavily on oil, as there is little to no financial incentive to force companies to invest in green power. This has led us to utilize deep-water drilling techniques which the spill proves we really can't contain if something goes wrong. If we focused on getting off oil power we eventually wouldn't need to use such techniques and thus would be spared future oil spill catastrophes. There's definitely a way Dems could have framed the debate if they wanted to, though they'd of course be accused of opportunistically taking advantage of a tragedy, but that's another debate.

visionbrkr, they'd need one Republican vote to get a climate bill passed in a lame-duck session. With Republicans flush with victory after November, it's very unlikely that Dems will be able to peel off a Republican who will be willing to vote against their caucus.

I think Kevin's right. Dems looked at the possibility of taking an unpopular vote on a climate bill and said, "Eh, let the EPA handle it." Not the most brave move ever...

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

To the extent Democratic pols buy into climate change being a problem, this is despicable. This is pretty much a now or never situation. Good to know that Democrats will only "solve" problems by spending taxpayer money to buy votes.

If they never believed in the science, then I can see why they wouldn't bother. You don't need to step out of the way of an imaginary truck. But to the extent they do believe a truck is rolling down the road, letting near-term political concerns stop them from even attempting to step in and prevent having their grandchildren get whacked by said truck is simply awful. They can expand government in every area, but when it comes to an actual tragedy of the commons problem where public interventioned might be justified, they bail?

Posted by: justin84 | July 19, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

MosBen, you said:
"If we focused on getting off oil power we eventually wouldn't need to use such techniques and thus would be spared future oil spill catastrophes."

Exactly. I agree wholeheartedly. We should be focused on getting off of oil to stop future pollution(and to save our economy from Peak Oil). That is what Harry Reid said, and I agree with him. So why are you and Ezra insisting on calling this "climate" legislation?

Imagine you are an average American who is not altogether bright. You see gas prices going up (and believe me, they are going to go much higher). You see the gulf coast covered in oil. And then you see Ezra Klein on TV demanding a "climate change" bill. Average American Guy is thinking "man, these liberals are out of touch. They are prioritizing climate over gas prices and pollution".

So to recap: a climate bill would accomplish the same thing as a "get off of oil" bill. So why are we liberals messaging with the former instead of the latter?

Posted by: nathanlindquist | July 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

This is great news. Cap and trade is fundamentally a bizarre Enron style scheme that ignores consumers and gives handouts to favored companies. I guess the politicians have decided that it wasn't a big enough gift to get anyone to vote for them. Sadly, the gutless in power won't give us a simple carbon consumption tax that doesn't let them pay off favored groups that would vote for them. I have heard of these great bark covered CO2 capture devices that we could plant more of with the carbon tax revenue...

Posted by: staticvars | July 19, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I can agree with @staticvars. We don't need another market that can be deregulated and derivative-ized and abused. We haven't even addressed the under-the-table way the energy sector has deregulated itself over the years lately--get a good explanation of that here:

Posted by: BryceCovert | July 19, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

staticvars and BryceCovert, I sympathize with aversions to creating a system that could be gamed, but I think it's a bit to hopeful to think that a carbon tax would ever be "simple". Take a two second look at our current tax code and its "simple" progressive income tax brackets. Any solution can be simple in theory, but just about any solution will get pretty complex in practice. The idea of cap & trade was that it was a market-based solution and would therefore be more palatable to conservatives. They did, afterall, invent it.

nathanlindquist, your point is well taken. There are a number of ways to frame it which do seem to appeal more to conservatives or those who don't find the climate science compelling. Still, I'm not quite ready to completely give up on the idea that we need to get off oil because anthropogenic climate change will have negative affects on our lifestyle.

Sadly, I think climate change is one of those areas that will never get addressed through legislation in a system with a filibuster. So we'll be left with the EPA doing its best, but won't be able to do enough.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you that climate change is a serious problem. But I think you (and to be fair 99% of other people) are seriously underestimating the risks that peak oil pose to our civilization. Next to peak oil, climate change is a walk in the park. Also peak oil is likely to solve your climate change problems for you.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | July 19, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

MosBen, the EPA could write some extremely draconian rules that would drastically reduce carbon emissions (at tremendous costs, since they are limeted in their options, not their authority). That may be the best chance for a climate bill to pass - have the EPA institute such harsh measures that industry will demand a climate bill pass (that will override the EPA).

Posted by: Levijohn | July 19, 2010 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Here's a research question for Ezra to pass on: what provisions of the Clean Air Act allow the EPA to regulate GHG emissions, and which ones; and by what means?

Posted by: Lonepine | July 20, 2010 1:52 AM | Report abuse

You're pointing to something true, Ezra, but I don't think you understand framing. There's no such thing as an "unframed" argument.

I'd restate your point like this: The side that is changing its framing is losing.

Posted by: dougmuder | July 20, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

@ Levijohn: doesn't the CAAA 1990 give EPA the authority to do permits and cap and trade? Or was that only for acid rain precursors?

Posted by: Lonepine | July 20, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Cap and Trade is a Hell of an Idea.... It helps China win the Energy race.... and the Jobs and Economy building race against the USA.....

It is simply more Progressive Socialism hard at work....eating away at the foundation of our economy and our national security.... and our Freedom.

Who pays for this ? WE the PEOPLE... the Consumer pays for this at all its levels. If any industry pays higher power bills... these pass on to the end products produced. And we the consumer pays !!

Net result..... Our nation's economy loses its competitive edge (or falls farther and farther behind). Our dollar loses more strength... and ultimately becomes practically worthless.... akin to the Mexican Peso.

Your kids lose the brightness of their future prospects.

In short.... Everybody loses !

Everybody !!

Posted by: Wordwaryor | July 20, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

One more Post Scriptum ;

Hey Nevada.... What are you thinking ?

Why on earth would you even consider re-electing Harry Reid ?

Save America. Send him home in November.


Posted by: Wordwaryor | July 20, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

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