For Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), it is "cap and invest." National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist James Hansen says it is "tax and trade."
Then there are "cap and cash back" and "cap and dividend," mottoes promoted by environmental investing expert Peter Barnes to describe proposals to cap greenhouse gases, often called "cap and trade."
Language even popped up in February as a jurisdiction issue in Congress, when Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and four other House Republicans argued that leading plans to address climate change are actually a "cap and tax" and therefore should begin their legislative path in the House of Representatives, since the Constitution states that all revenue bills must originate there.
Aware of the ability of slogans like "No Child Left Behind" to drive the debate on past topics, policymakers are ramping up their rhetoric about global warming like never before. All sides have opportunities to gain political traction by choosing their words carefully, even if President Obama's opponents appear to have the current edge in the communication war, many analysts say.
"Language is the key to everything, even if only five Americans understand the details of these proposals," said Dane Strother, a Democratic political consultant.
Phrase soup: hot, but not very nourishing
Much of the phrase soup exists because of different versions of cap and trade, a concept that is already plenty complicated. It would restrict the total amount of greenhouse gases that companies emit and force them to buy credits if they spew more than the allowed amount.
Policymakers have competing ideas about how to distribute the resulting money that would come into the U.S. Treasury. Some want to return the cash to Americans through a regular "dividend" or "rebate." Others want to "invest" it to boost research in clean energy technologies. Obama wants to recycle much of the revenue to the public through tax credits and uses "cap and trade" as his preferred phrase.
Several analysts said that opponents of the cap concept have found an effective tool in the word "tax," which has generated anger in the minds of Americans going all the way back to the Boston Tea Party. That word alone could do significant damage to Obama's plans, said George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
"If 'cap and tax' becomes the defining term, it's going to take us six months to redefine it," added Strother. Environmental issues are a tough sell even in good economic times, he said, making the current environment especially difficult.
A Republican aide on Capitol Hill said some GOP members are ramping up use of the word "scheme" in describing a cap, since "it sounds devious" in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown.
'Tax' is the preferred 'attack mechanism'
According to Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University, the slew of phrases poses an additional problem for the president, particularly since opponents appear united around "tax" as an attack mechanism.
With polls showing that the American public continues to rank climate change low on its radar in comparison to other concerns, the pro-cap crowd needs to get behind one set of talking points, he said.
The president should counterattack to a degree, he said, but should use allies from interest groups, the religious community and the Republican party to flood the media with a positive message and control the news cycle. In his view, a monthlong marketing campaign is needed to demonstrate in a tangible way how a global-warming bill could benefit local communities and spur "green" jobs.
"I do think there is a big danger [for Obama] to get distracted by climate skeptics and spend too much time on the defensive," said Nisbet.
In Lakoff's view, the best way to sell a cap on greenhouse gases is to get across the idea of "ownership of the air." He recommended that the administration make the argument that "polluters" have been releasing carbon dioxide for a long period of time and should have to pay "dumping fees."
The "cap and dividend" or "cap and cash back" approach is the only way to capitalize on that type of language, he said. A cap should be tied to a regular check in the mail clearly stating that individuals hold a stake in the air, in much the same way they would hold stock in a company, he said.
"A tax credit is too hidden for most people," he said.
Try, maybe, 'cap and invest'?
Recent research provides additional advice on linguistics for the president.
In a soon-to-be-released paper, Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick reports that many people are reluctant to endorse cap and trade because they are skeptical that it would reduce emissions.
Only after being presented with language pointing out that a similar program helped reduce acid rain in the 1990s did his survey subjects warm to the idea. Krosnick said Obama should focus on the acid-rain example and not waste valuable time talking about how a cap would be enforceable or efficient.
"If public voices now use terms like 'cap and invest' instead of 'cap and trade,' listeners will realize this is code language for something, and they'll want to know what the something is," he said. "Once people learn what the term means, the particular words in the label won't have influence."
The use of language by politicians to shape the public psyche is nothing new. In the 1990s, many conservatives tried to repeal a tax on the estates of deceased individuals by calling the law "the death tax." President Bill Clinton's health care proposal, which incorporated recommendations from a task force headed by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, was slammed as "Hillarycare."
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Democrats countered an attempt to create "personal" accounts for Social Security with the mantra that they were "private" accounts that would unravel one of the most popular programs in U.S. history.
Beyond the cap-and-trade question, players on all sides of the climate debate have been trying to gain a communication advantage for years. The wrangling goes back to at least 2003, when Republican pollster Frank Luntz circulated a memo arguing that "climate change" was a less frightening term than "global warming," prompting a terminology shift among many conservatives.
'Clean coal' vs. 'carbon charge'
These days, there's an ongoing advertising war about the phrase "clean coal," with environmentalists arguing that there is no such thing and industry leaders suggesting that commercial technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from power plants is on the verge of implementation. Supporters of carbon offsets, or offsets for projects that reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sometimes call them "emission reduction projects."
And some supporters of a carbon tax, like Cecil Corbin-Mark, executive director of environmental justice group WE ACT, are using the phrase "carbon charge," aware of public distrust of the "T" word.
An issue whose public image closely resembles that of climate change is the theory of evolution, in that it deals with a concept widely accepted by scientists but that is not visible to people on a daily basis, said Tarla Peterson, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied environmental rhetoric.
One lesson to be learned from the scuffle on that topic is that it doesn't help proponents of an issue to get bogged down in arguments about scientific certainty. Doing so just confuses the public, she said.
Instead, it would be better for backers of a greenhouse gas cap to reassure people that such a plan won't change their life that much, despite its complexity.
"Selling change is hard work in itself," she said. "The more Obama ties this issue to the status quo, the more effective he will be."
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