My experience attending a climate policy bootcamp

by Michael A. Pinkert (Graduate Research Assistant, CaSP Member) 

Climate change is such a conversational debate that there’s seldom any discussion on what actual policies could help combat it.  Recently, I got to find out for myself in person at an annual open-registration climate policy bootcamp hosted by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a bi-partisan non-profit advocating for climate change legislation.  This two-day bootcamp was a world class opportunity to learn from renowned policy experts and really dig deep into the details of climate change policy. There were three primary themes: an in depth look at a specific bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives; a simulated international negotiation on using policy decisions to reduce greenhouse gases; and strategies to communicate carbon pricing.  I wrote this blog post to summarize what I’ve learned about these themes and to give a preview of this engaging camp.

Carbon Pricing Basics

The camp started with an introduction to carbon pricing. In short, the idea is that if you place a fee on carbon, people will buy less of it.  If the price is high enough, firms will look for lower-carbon alternatives. If the fee covers enough sources of pollution, it will shift the whole economy towards the low-carbon future we need to combat climate change.  Of course, the reality is quite a bit trickier.

Economists universally agree that a carbon fee is a good idea, but it is politically controversial because 1) no one likes paying extra taxes, especially the richest sectors of the economy which it targets, 2) carbon fee opponents cast them as “big government” and “economy killing,” and 3) carbon fees address a problem that until recently was seen as distant in space and time.  Additionally, implementing a fee comes with many challenging questions: A fee would increase the price of goods, so how do you make sure the burden doesn’t fall on those least able to pay for it?  A fee would make carbon-intensive products less competitive internationally, so how do you prevent manufacturing from just moving to another country and in the process losing those jobs and emitting the carbon anyway?  Most importantly, how do you engage a diverse audience from both sides of the political spectrum? Some of the articles I’ve linked to address these problems, but HR 763 (see below) answers them best. 

H.R. 763: The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act

Our next session dove into a discussion on a bill that tries to attend the aforementioned concerns and that is currently on the floor of the House of Representatives: the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.  This bill is a well-studied bipartisan proposal aimed at addressing these concerns.  It implements a price on carbon which starts at $15/ton of CO2 emissions and rapidly increases the rate $10-20 each subsequent year.  

There are three further vital aspects to this bill that make it different from many other carbon fee proposals. The first is that the bill is “revenue-neutral;” all the money collected by the fee goes back to the American public in a check every month.  This turns the bill into a net positive for the majority of American households because a minority of high-income offenders cause the most pollution.  

The second aspect is a border-adjustment, where carbon-intensive goods leaving the country qualify for a rebate and goods entering the country are charged a fee.  This means that goods produced in the US would be competitive domestically and internationally.  

The third aspect is the most controversial and involves a rollback on the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide.  The counter-intuitive logic to this rollback is that a carbon fee accomplishes our goals, so the EPA doesn’t need to double-burden companies with further regulations.  The rollback only applies to EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for the purposes of global warming, but still allows regulations based on air-quality or fuel emissions standards.  However, if the US doesn’t meet the reduction targets specified in the bill, there is a clawback mechanism to re-enable EPA carbon regulations In addition, nothing prevents congress from passing new laws that would re-enable the regulations.  

These three provisions succinctly address the main concerns with carbon pricing.  The dividend eases the burden on individuals, the border carbon adjustment eases burdens on firms, and the regulation rollback appeals to conservatives concerned with regulations and the size of the government.  Altogether, this is one of the most promising initiatives on federal carbon pricing currently in play.

International Climate Change Negotiations

The next part of the boot camp was a climate change negotiation simulation. This negotiation was similar to the World Climate Simulation (C-ROADS) event CaSP recently ran. However, while C-ROADS simply tracked and simulated commitments with no details on how they would be fulfilled, the policy camp negotiation used a policy simulator tool that tracks greenhouse gas emissions against specific policy decisions.  The idea of the simulation was simple: The U.S. passes H.R. 763, then needs to negotiate with foreign countries who don’t want to have the border carbon adjustment applied to their goods.  The goal was to reduce emissions by the amount specified in the bill by any means possible – carbon pricing or through other legal means. The participating countries were Canada, China, India, and Mexico.  There was a further wrinkle: each person was assigned a character with their own interests and goals. The characters were diverse, representing federal governments, sub-federal governments, and affected industries including fossil fuels and solar power.  

My own role during the simulation was that of a Canadian Foreign Minister. My priorities were to keep our political party in power, keep costs to consumers down, and combat climate change.  The first goal may sound selfish, but as I learned in a discussion on carbon pricing policy in Canada, keeping the current political party in power is vitally important if there is political opposition.  Canada recently implemented a federal carbon price and this policy is in danger of being cancelled if the Liberal Party of Canada loses power.

The negotiation itself was a wild and energizing ride: three hours of total chaos, with members of each nation convening in rapid discussions and then running back to their group to try to come up with a coherent plan.  There were several tricky moments. At one point, India was ignored for an entire round of negotiations and their representative justifiably called out the rest of the countries on the error. Somehow the negotiation pulled through in the end.  All the governments were able to implement policies and reach the reduction targets. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I failed my #1 goal – the policies we implemented and promises we made to other countries would be a hard sell to the Canadian public.  The only way to save our government would be an excellent communication strategy.

Communicating Carbon Pricing

The final theme of the camp was on how to communicate carbon pricing.  This theme roughly followed the eightfold path of policy analysis, where a communication strategy is at the start, the middle, and the end of all policy decisions.  This is a key failure in many real-world carbon pricing attempts; communication strategies are often disregarded,  allowing opponents to frame carbon pricing as a negative thing.

One of the main tools I picked up from the camp was a guide to communicating carbon pricing.  Communications and advocacy consultant for the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition at the World Bank, Tom Erb, shared with us his experiences organizing carbon pricing initiatives across the world, and related the many challenges facing carbon pricing advocates.

The main lesson climate advocates have learned over the years is that facts are not enough.  Ironically, being more educated makes you more certain of your position on climate change, one way or another.  Your beliefs are about who you support and the values you hold, with facts only a distant influence.  Thus, it’s vitally important to speak to people on an emotional, personal level, and not just throw information at them. 

Little did I know that I would be immediately applying climate change communication knowledge on the flight home.  I sat next to a conservative woman from Maryland. We first bonded over living in gerrymandered states, then got into a lively discussion on climate change and H.R. 763.   It was a wild ride discussing the bill with her; she voiced many valid concerns, ranging from the costs of administration, to imposing values on other people, and to lifestyle hypocrisy in many climate advocates.  I can’t say that I convinced her by the end of the flight, but it was a good lesson in applying what I’d just learned. Overall, this was an amazing and educational experience. This camp is open to any interested member of the public and is a great crash course in the science policy behind climate change.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in this topic in the future.