The Power of ‘Three Concerned Citizens … With a Video Camera and a Computer’

A respected George Mason University climate change communications expert, Ed Maibach, is pointing to a do-it-yourself 10-minute video by two Environmental Protection Agency Region X (San Francisco) attorneys as “a wonderful example” of effective climate change communications.

The video is a home-made no-frills argument – made in their private capacity as citizens, and not as employees of the federal government – that the U.S. Congress could soon make a “huge mistake” in enacting “fatally flawed” legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade strategy. While necessarily distancing themselves from their own employer and from the Obama administration generally, attorneys Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel say congressional leaders “are getting bad advice” and therefore “getting it wrong.”

Sitting together in a casual home setting, the two attorneys, with a 19-year-old University of California Santa Cruz student videographer, speak directly into the camera. Some background music and various Powerpoint-type graphics accompany their presentation, but they basically speak from the heart.

They break their brief video into three segments – “The Big Lie,” “The Big Rip-off,” and “Real Solution.” They reject suggestions that the EPA experience with an acid rain emissions trading program suggests a similar cap-and-trade program could work with climate change: The acid rain program was “relatively easy” and basically involved shifting to lower-sulfur coal and little or no new infrastructure. A climate change cap-and-trade program would involve not minor “tweaks” but rather “an energy revolution” shifting to renewables, hydro, etc. They say the offsets program in the Waxman-Markey legislation narrowly passed by the House of Representatives, and serving as the basis for Senate consideration, is an “integrity-destroying” approach.

In the “Real Solution” segment of their video, they say “a real, affordable, and effective” strategy for reducing greenhouse gases is available through emission taxes, a term and concept most elected officials are loathe to embrace. The attorneys say only a carbon tax – with per-person monthly rebates to customers – can lead to “the powerful shift of incentives” they insist is needed. Too bad, they argue, that “there are no powerful special interests lobbying for this real solution, but many prominent economists agree it would be effective.” Concluding their “call to action,” they urge viewers to contact legislators and Executive Branch officials to “do better … get it right” by turning instead to carbon taxes.

While few Washington watchers think the carbon tax approach has any hopes of favorable consideration, notwithstanding the seemingly dim near-term prospects for the cap-and-trade effort, the new video is not the first time the two attorneys have gone public with their own angst over cap and trade. In 2008, they published an “open letter” to Congress supporting carbon fees rather than cap and trade (see Yale Forum article).

To George Mason climate communicator Maibach, the brief and inexpensively produced video has the essential qualities needed in effective communication on such an issue: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and based on a story. Maibach said in an e-mail promoting the video that it makes “a compelling case for basing national climate change legislation on carbon fees” instead of on cap and trade.

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