Yale Prof: Cap and Trade Got Ditched ... Because Voters Didn't Know What It Was

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The recriminations will be coming fast and furious as to why Democrats holding the White House, House of Representatives, and essentially 60 seats in the Senate weren't able to pass into law a price on carbon emissions that was a top priority of party leaders. (Here's an early sampler, which pins most of the blame on President Barack Obama.)

Pollster Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University thinks the problem was that Americans didn't know what they were being sold. He released polling data in January of this year in which 1000 adults were asked:

How much, if anything, have you heard about a policy being considered by the president and Congress called "cap and trade" that would set limits on carbon dioxide emissions?

Amazingly, 60% of respondents had heard "Nothing at all" and 28% a little. "That was evidence of a huge problem," Leiserowitz said today. House Democrats had for the first time ever passed a comprehensive cap-and-trade bill in June of last year; in the following 6 months, the president and his allies in Congress and in green groups had done nothing to explain to the public what they were trying to sell in the Senate, where the politics were much tougher.

Framing the issue as a question of jobs, which Obama's main climate advocate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) did repeatedly, was a –good idea for the short term, said Leiserowitz. (He also agreed with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who said in January that talking about climate science would not win votes in the short term.) But a main problem that advocates did not tackle, said Leiserowitz, was actually explaining what they were trying to sell.

Not everyone agreed on this messaging question, by a long shot. Said Grist reporter David Roberts around the same time, citing similar polling stats:

I don't care if the public knows what cap-and-trade is. I just want to stop talking about it. Our collective ship is sinking and we're involved in a heated debate about the kind of wrench to use to tighten the bolts on the lifeboat. How about first we all agree that we need to get off the damn ship.

Posted in Policy