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date: 24 April 2018

Communicating about Carbon Taxes and Emissions Trading Programs

Summary and Keywords

In debates surrounding policy options for mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, economists of various political stripes are near unanimous in their advocacy of putting a price on carbon, whether through a tax or emissions trading program. Due to the visible costs imposed on industry and consumers, however, these policies have been resisted by carbon-intensive industries and by an ideologically divided public, producing incentives for vote-seeking politicians to avoid implementing comprehensive and stringent carbon prices within their own borders. In this highly politicized environment, and considering the more recent diffusion of market-based instruments across political jurisdictions around the world, researchers have sought to identify the conditions most favorable to implementing carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs, the correlates of public support for these policies, and the extent to which different communication strategies may help build public support. How do experts, political leaders, and members of the public understand these policy instruments, and what specific approaches have been most successful in persuading policy makers and the public to support a price on carbon? In places that have yet to implement a carbon price, what can communication strategists learn from existing research and the experience of other jurisdictions where such policies have been successfully implemented? In places where carbon taxes or carbon cap-and-trade programs exist, how are the benefits of these policies best communicated to ensure the durability of carbon pricing policies over time?

Keywords: carbon pricing, carbon tax, emissions trading, framing, public opinion


Responding to the problem of climate change is one of the thorniest issues facing governments in the 21st century. Limiting further climate change requires drastic cuts to the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that accrue in the atmosphere, yet the source of this pollution is ubiquitous, generated by nearly every type of economic activity found in modern society. While there is no clear, one-size-fits-all, “first best” solution, a strong case has been made for the use of flexible economic instruments as a means of reducing heat-trapping emissions at lowest cost. Despite such efficiency, perhaps no other policy approach has been as politically explosive. Indeed, as controversy around the world can attest, debate over price-based climate policy instruments can produce strange coalitions and destroy political careers. In this context, this article examines the considerable debate that has emerged around the use of carbon pricing as a means of reducing GHG emissions, with a focus on aspects related to carbon price communication. Specifically, the different ways actors communicate around carbon pricing, and the effectiveness of these approaches for persuading policy makers and public opinion, are examined against the backdrop of academic studies of framing effects, practical experience, as well as the intellectual and social history of this policy idea.

In this article, the term carbon pricing is used to denote a policy framework that uses a price-based signal to incentivize emissions reductions. Although a range of options can facilitate carbon pricing (Aldy et al., 2012), and while other policies can create an implicit price (Stern, 2007; OECD, 2013), attention has overwhelmingly focused on ways to price carbon emissions directly, either through a carbon tax or emissions trading program (or carbon cap-and-trade program) that can be applied either upstream at the point of production, or downstream where fossil fuels are consumed. Both tax and trade mechanisms fall under the category of market-based (or economic) instruments which, in contrast to prescriptive regulations, reflect a flexible, decentralized approach to environmental regulation that privileges market signals to incentivize behavioral change, while focusing on aggregate outcomes, such as total pollution levels, rather than the performance of individual factories or polluters (Olmstead, 2013). Advocated by economists for decades, oft-cited advantages of using economic incentives over alternative policies include the promise of delivering emissions reductions at lowest cost, creating dynamic incentives for the adoption and diffusion of cheaper emissions control technologies, while maximizing net social welfare (Keohane et al., 1998; Pearce, 2002). Such advocacy on behalf of economists and a range of other social actors has elevated carbon pricing in climate policy debate, and in the context of numerous controversies over their use, provides carbon price proponents with a repertoire of arguments commonly used to justify their political implementation.

Widely popular among academic economists and policy wonks, expert support for carbon pricing is perhaps matched only by the unpopularity of these instruments among some segments of the public. This is true despite decades of advocacy that has led governments to place carbon pricing firmly on policy agendas at the regional, national, and international level. However, research on the politics of carbon pricing lags significantly behind this important political development. While carbon pricing is hotly debated in academic and political circles, relative to studies of climate science communication, for instance, comparatively little academic research examines how proponents and opponents communicate around this policy idea. Nevertheless, several branches of the climate change and climate policy literature are increasingly turning attention toward issues of carbon price communication and public support. This is important, given the fact that the perceived costs of climate policy solutions like carbon pricing can make people skeptical of climate science and polarize the public on this issue (Fisher et al., 2013; Campbell et al., 2014). In this context, this article explores the intellectual and social history of debates around carbon pricing, highlighting some of the social, political, and communicative bases of political support for this widely supported yet politically controversial approach to reducing GHG emissions.

Context: The Promise of Carbon Pricing

Since the mid 2000s, governments around the world are paying increasing attention to economic instruments as a means of reducing GHG emissions. Despite occasional proposals for a system of internationally harmonized or global carbon pricing (Nordhaus, 2007b; Dion & Laurent, 2012), carbon prices have, for the most part, been unilaterally implemented by national and subnational governments, and in a few notable cases, with limited linkage in Europe and parts of North America. According to the World Bank (2016), the number of carbon price initiatives has grown from just two in 1990 to 38 in 2016, and they can now be found on nearly every continent across the globe (Figure 1). Although most of these prices are very modest, this steady increase in the number of market-based climate policies is consistent with the diffusion of liberal environmental norms (Bernstein, 2001) and reflects the dominant role of economic rationality in conceptualizing environmental problems and associated policy solutions (Pearce, 2002).

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Figure 1. Number of implemented carbon prices and share of global greenhouse gas emmisions covered by carbon pricing, World Bank, 2016.

The Rise of Carbon Pricing

When environmental problems first emerged on government agendas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, policy makers relied primarily on direct regulation—in the form of technology and performance standards—as the preferred policy approach (Harrington & Morgenstern, 2007). Opposition to this paradigm helped spur the emergence of environmental economics as a subdiscipline focused on making a normative case for market-based solutions to environmental problems (Pearce, 2002). Scholarship in this burgeoning field often lamented the lack of progress in getting their ideas implemented in policy (Hahn, 1998), and a turn toward the positive political economy of instrument choice helped explain the dominance of less efficient, direct regulation as the joint product of bureaucratic and business preferences for direct regulations on the one hand, and a resistance to market-based approaches to environmental regulation among members of the environmental movement, on the other. Politically, administrators were more comfortable and familiar with prescriptive standards, which also offered politicians the possibility of hiding costs of pollution control from voters, while providing opportunities to claim credit for enacting visible, if less efficient, measures (Keohane et al., 1998).

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, scholarship began to identify a shift as governments experimented with economic instruments as tools of environmental policy (Freeman & Kolstad, 2007). This development came on the heels of a sustained critique of direct regulations mounted by economists who argued that, by subjecting heterogeneous firms to the same government-mandated technological fixes, these so-called “command and control” policies generated excessive costs and stifled innovation. Instead, environmental economists advocated for the use of economic incentives—attaching a uniform cost to the environmentally damaging behavior such that low marginal cost polluters make the greatest abatement efforts, thereby achieving a reduction in pollution at the lowest aggregate cost to society (Pearce, 1991). This approach borrowed heavily from the nearly hundred-year-old idea of raising corrective taxes to internalize the (unintended and uncompensated) external costs associated with inefficient economic activity and market failure (Pigou, 1920).

While setting the appropriate tax level—that is equal to the marginal externality—is far from straightforward, a seminal contribution was provided by Coase (1960), who first proposed that the market could play a role in efficiently determining the value of external costs by making property rights explicit and transferable (Tietenberg, 2010), an idea that was operationalized by economists examining air and water pollution (Crocker, 1966; Dales, 1968) and theoretically demonstrated by Montgomery (1972). The creation of the Environment Directorate at the OECD played a key role in disseminating these insights, and developed the “Polluter Pays Principle” in the 1970s, which helped promote the idea of internalization of environmental costs through the application of market-based instruments (OECD, 1975; Pearce, 2002). In turn, governments began experimenting with emissions trading for conventional pollutants, reflecting a normative shift toward liberal environmental norms, which helped to further legitimate economic instruments, even among some members of the environmental movement who initially resisted their use (Bernstein, 2001; Gorman & Solomon, 2002; Voß & Simons, 2014).

From this perspective, the arrival of climate change on the political agenda in the late 1980s provided advocates of market-based instruments with another policy problem on which to hang their preferred solutions. Informed by a series of studies published by the OECD, a handful of countries in northern Europe implemented carbon taxes in the early 1990s, several years before the emergence of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (Sumner et al., 2011). Following debate on the best way to price carbon at the international level, and buoyed by examples of successful cap-and-trade programs for other pollutants (Stavins, 1998), a coalition of environmental economists, business interests, and some environmental groups (like Environmental Defense) played a key role in including a system of tradable emissions permits as part of the global climate regime (Christiansen & Wettestad, 2003; Meckling, 2011). Despite initial resistance by the European Union, which had earlier preferred a system of harmonized taxes, a consensus on including flexible trading mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol was forged (Christiansen & Wettestad, 2003; Skjærseth & Wettestad, 2009). This development created fertile conditions for the diffusion of carbon markets across all major continents (Paterson et al., 2014), reflecting the emergence of a new carbon economy predicated on the dominance of pro-market ideology, the power of finance, and the role of business coalitions in influencing public policy (Newell & Peterson, 2010; Meckling, 2011). Beyond these more traditional forms, an interest in the normative principle of equal per capita emissions rights has led to discussion of new approaches that impose an explicit carbon price downstream (i.e., at the level of consumption), including tradable energy quotas (TEQs) and personal carbon allowances (PCA) (Fawcett & Parag, 2010). Although personal trading approaches bring potential advantages in terms of enhanced equity and effectiveness, however, they tend to be less discussed than carbon taxes and upstream cap-and-trade programs, and face key challenges in terms of administrative complexity and the absence of a major coalition supporting their use.

A Carbon Price Consensus?

Coinciding with the ascendance of liberal environmental norms and the centrality of economic instruments in climate policy discussions has been a growing choir of support among policy analysts, think tanks, academic economists, international organizations, environmental groups and members of the business community on the benefits of putting a price on carbon (Rabe, 2010; Meckling, 2011; Belfry Monroe, 2016). Although carbon pricing (and emissions trading in particular) has been the subject of important critique concerning the efficacy, morality, integrity, and legitimacy of this economic approach to protecting nature (Goodin, 1994; Castree, 2003; Bachram, 2004; Lohmann, 2005; Wara, 2007), a wide variety of climate policy stakeholders are united in their support of a carbon price (World Bank, 2014; Climate Leadership Council, 2017).

Within this broad coalition, perhaps the most important carbon price advocates have been academic economists and international organizations. With slogans such as “price it right, tax it smart, do it now” (Lagarde, 2015), the IMF, World Bank, and OECD have embedded carbon pricing in the international liberal economic order and diffused the economic case for carbon pricing worldwide (OECD, 2001, 2004; World Bank, 2016). Moreover, economists of various political stripes—including William Nordhaus, Martin Feldstein, Alan Greenspan, Gary Becker, Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, Richard Posner, Joe Stiglitz, Robert Samuelson, Paul Volcker, and Lawrence Summers, to name a few—have publically declared their support for carbon pricing. Several (non–peer-reviewed) studies attempt to quantify this remarkable convergence of opinion, with estimates of climate change economists’ preferences for carbon pricing ranging from 81% to 100%, depending on differences in question wording, sample size, and sample composition (GAO, 2008; Howard & Sylvan, 2015). Although not all economists are equally as enthusiastic about carbon pricing (Jaccard, 2016), and while some openly question whether a public primarily concerned about their pocketbooks really cares about what Nobel-prize winning economists think (Copps, 2008), this emerging consensus has played an important role in governmental communication around the benefits of putting a price on carbon, and it raises the question of whether communicating this expert consensus may help increase levels of policy support (cf. Ding et al., 2011; van der Linden et al., 2015).

In the context of a “market society” in which the socially constructed authority of economic rationality looms large (Polanyi, 1944), the Stern Review (2007) commissioned by the U.K. government reflects the growing influence of economists in the climate change debate (GAO, 2008; Garnaut, 2008, 2011). Employing a range of conventional methods to evaluate the costs and risks of climate change and its mitigation, the Stern Review marks an important development in building the normative justification for swift action, arguing that the costs of climate change inaction greatly outweigh the costs of mitigation, turning much of the conventional economic thinking on its head. This helped reframe the issue less as a question of whether mitigation is too costly, but rather by how much and how quickly mitigation should occur (Nordhaus, 2007a). The report also sparked high-profile debate around estimates of the social cost of carbon and the ethics of discounting (Nordhaus, 2007a; Revesz, 2014), the limits of integrated assessment models, cost–benefit analysis, and economic valuation (Ackerman et al., 2009), as well as on the (non)substitutability of natural capital (Neumayer, 2007). The Stern report has subsequently been heavily referenced by practitioners seeking to spur GHG reductions, and along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), its release coincided with heightened public perceptions of the seriousness of the climate change issue (Figure 2).

Communicating about Carbon Taxes and Emissions Trading ProgramsClick to view larger

Figure 2. Public perceptions of seriousness of climate change, 1998–2015, Globescan and BBC World Service.

Notwithstanding this heightened role of economists and the remarkable convergence of economic thought, a number of debates have surfaced within the carbon price community. These include debate over optimal price levels and policy design (Pizer, 2002; Stavins, 2008; Nordhaus, 2010), impacts on economic growth, competitiveness, and social welfare (Ekins & Baker, 2001; Bruvoll & Larsen, 2004; Zhang & Baranzini, 2004; Wier et al., 2005; Andersen & Ekins, 2009) as well as the potential benefits of carbon pricing for induced technological innovation and enhanced economic efficiency (Jaffe & Stavins, 1995; Bovenberg, 1999). Other debates around the best means—whether through taxation or emissions trading, and whether or not to link—have been particularly controversial (Keohane, 2008; Avi-Yonah & Uhlmann, 2009; Green, 2017). Carbon taxes are often favored on economic grounds for their efficiency, simplicity and stability, producing revenues derived from a clear price signal that imposes fewer transaction costs (Mankiw, 2009). On the other hand, a cap-and-trade program with auctioned allowances is generally favored on political and environmental grounds because the policy provides greater emissions certainty while veiling the costs imposed on consumers (Barthold, 1994; Rabe, 2010) and because such programs create economic constituencies (lawyers, auditors with a direct financial stake in the policy) as well as opportunities for regulated entities to sell permits, all of which can increase political acceptability and support (Meckling, 2011; Paterson, 2012). While the relative merits and drawbacks of carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade programs have been debated ad nauseum, the two instruments are at least in theory, functionally equivalent (Weitzman, 1974). In fact, the particular design of either a carbon tax or emissions trading program is crucial for determining its overall effectiveness, and these design choices can erode the distinctiveness of either approach (Aldy et al., 2012). As a result, the more relevant debate continues to be between economically efficient carbon pricing and politically more palatable regulations and subsidies.

Challenge: Good Policy, Bad Politics

While carbon pricing is considered by most experts to be good policy, it is also commonly considered bad politics. Even when flanked by the authority of expert economists and armed with economic justifications, the case for carbon pricing remains a politically difficult sell. In fact, several carbon price proposals have cost politicians their political careers, leading many decision makers to perceive carbon pricing—especially carbon taxes—as political suicide (Dion, 2013; MacNeil, 2016). Due to the distributional incidence and to the visible costs imposed on carbon intensive goods and services that are highly salient for industry and consumer pocketbooks (e.g., energy and transportation), direct forms of cost imposition—like carbon pricing—tend to be less popular than less efficient policies like regulations (that hide) or subsidies (that remove) costs. If vote-seeking politicians in representative democracies avoid policies that are unpopular among their constituents, they have incentives to eschew carbon pricing, or significantly water these policies down by limiting coverage, providing financial assistance for businesses (including freely allocating permits), and/or by implementing modest prices. The resulting tradeoff—between developing good policy (i.e., economically efficient) and practicing good politics (i.e., politically acceptable)—is at the heart of contemporary debates around carbon pricing (Jagers & Hammar, 2009; Daugbjerg et al., 2003).

Political Economy Constraints

The political economy literature points to several hurdles facing carbon pricing. Conventional wisdom suggests that reducing GHG emissions poses a classic prisoner’s dilemma; given the costs of climate change mitigation and the global public good nature of the Earth’s climate, countries are encouraged to free ride on the efforts of others (Olson, 1965). While overcoming such a dilemma requires some degree of international coordination, countries have differential incentives to cooperate, owing to their variable abatement costs and vulnerability to climate damages (McKinsey, 2013; Kreft et al., 2016). Moreover, the primary benefits of climate change mitigation (i.e., future damage avoided) are largely invisible and uncertain, accruing mostly to future generations, while the costs of action are borne in the present day (Solomon & IPCC, 2007). Considering the well-known tendency for individuals to discount the future (Green et al., 1994), reducing GHG emissions raises thorny questions around the ethics of discounting costs and benefits of climate mitigation across generations (Nordhaus, 2007a; Stern, 2007).

The public choice and political science literature shed further light on a second form of political constraint—distributional politics. Because pricing policies create winners and losers, policy makers are forced to consider the distributional impacts of carbon pricing for all their constituents. For instance, because climate change mitigation—and carbon pricing in particular—directly affect the value of fossil fuel assets, these powerful interests have an incentive to mobilize forcefully against climate action, leading to substantial business-friendly concessions, while the diffuse benefits created by GHG reductions fail to mobilize the benefactors to an equal degree (Dunlap & McCright, 2015; Jenkins et al., 2016). This unequal distribution of concentrated costs and diffuse benefits (Olson, 1965) helps explain the higher tax incidence falling onto weakly organized consumer interests compared to the smaller and more concentrated interests of industry groups (Svendsen et al., 2001). Similarly, concern over a loss of international competitiveness has led governments to provide substantial exemptions (including rebates and freely allocated emissions permits) for some industries (Vehmas, 2005; Baldwin, 2008). While these coverage gaps help increase political support among regulated entities (Lachapelle et al., 2017), this practice may also significantly dilute the efficiency and effectiveness of carbon pricing policy (Ekins & Speck, 1999; Grubb & Neuhoff, 2006), leading some to call for the enactment of less efficient but politically more acceptable “green industrial policy” (e.g., regulations and subsidies) to build broader political support for carbon regulation (Meckling et al., 2015).

Meanwhile, other societal groups also stand to bear a disproportionate share of the carbon price burden, further highlighting the tension between economic efficiency and distributional politics. This is especially the case for poorer households that spend a larger share of their disposable income on carbon-intensive goods and services like home heating, as well as rural dwellers that are particularly dependent on transportation fuels (OECD, 1995; Speck, 1999; Baranzini et al., 2000). Much of the theoretical literature on this question has found that carbon prices tend to be mildly regressive (Hamilton & Cameron, 1994; Callan et al., 2009), particularly for rural households (Wier et al., 2005), but revenue-recycling options can mitigate their regressivity (Bureau, 2011). Given such distributional implications, some groups have criticized carbon pricing policies on environmental justice grounds (Kaswan, 2014), leading governments to provide targeted assistance to soften the blow for lower income groups and those living in rural communities (Murray & Rivers, 2015; Beck et al., 2016). Similar to the decision by government to provide exemptions for industry, the use of carbon price revenues to alleviate distributional implications can further limit the policy’s overall efficiency (Burtraw & Sekar, 2014).

Cost Imposition, Pocketbook Politics, and the Politics of Blame Avoidance

Efforts to transform existing patterns of energy production and consumption toward less carbon-intensive practices—of which carbon pricing is a part—raise the prospect of another set of political constraints. As pointed out by Nordhaus (2013), the economics of climate change highlight an inconvenient truth for policy; namely, that for any climate policy to be effective, it must raise the cost of behaviors, goods and services that produce GHG emissions. The problem is that consumers are not willing to pay much for climate mitigation. According to one study, and drawing on a review of 27 others, estimates of the public’s willingness to pay for GHG reductions fall between $80 and $200 per household per year, or what translates into a direct carbon price of about $2 to $8 per metric ton of carbon dioxide (Hardisty et al., 2010, cited in Jenkins, 2014). This limited willingness to accept the costs of mitigation falls woefully short of the estimated prices required to fully capture the true marginal costs of climate damage (Jenkins et al., 2016), and lends credence to the “iron low” of climate policy, which states that people are willing to bear costs to reduce emissions, but only up to a point (Pielke, 2011). Frustrated with the public’s limited willingness to bear costs, which has translated into very modest carbon prices in most jurisdictions, some have expressed a renewed interest in regulatory approaches as a means of imposing “implicit” carbon prices that are less visible and more politically palatable (Jaccard, 2016). Moreover, the political difficulties in implementing meaningful carbon prices, the associated recourse to regulations, and the interactions between pricing and regulation has ignited further debate on the role of market mechanisms in the policy mix between market purists (who prefer that governments rely on a stringent carbon price and let the market do its work) and pragmatists (who see carbon pricing as a backstop and insurance measure to set a pollution limit and mop up remaining emissions that politically more palatable regulations miss) (Burtraw, 2013; Wara, 2014; Bang et al., 2017).

In an era of pocketbook politics (Jacobs, 2007), policy makers must deal with the fact that citizens are primarily concerned with how climate policy will affect their bottom line. In fact, one of the reasons why carbon pricing is thought to be so controversial is that the language of “prices” and “costs” (to say nothing of “taxes”) so often used by economists to justify carbon pricing inadvertently activates the “self-interest” and “sacrifice” frames in peoples’ minds (Stoknes, 2014). Moreover, because individuals tend to be loss averse (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984) and discount the future (Green et al., 1994), efforts to persuade them on the necessity of making personal sacrifices in the short term (e.g., paying a new tax) for uncertain benefits realized in the distant future (e.g., a stable climate) is a difficult sell. This reticence to paying for something that does not yield an immediate return is further exacerbated by the “antitax politics” found in several of the most carbon-intensive, liberal democratic political economies where carbon pricing has been particularly controversial and easy to frame as excessively onerous for families and workers (MacNeil, 2016).

Politically, the debate over carbon pricing falls squarely in the realm of the politics of loss imposition and the politics of pain (Pal & Weaver, 2003). Because policies that take are more salient than policies that give resources to citizens, politicians have an incentive to avoid new taxes and the blame associated with costly policies more generally (Weaver, 1986). Applied to the problem of climate change, this creates a perverse situation in which, seeing few immediate benefits, cost-conscious voters reject policies that impose direct costs on their polluting behavior and carbon-intensive lifestyles. In turn, vote-seeking politicians have an incentive to avoid such policies, or to find ways to veil costs in an effort to maintain political support. This dynamic helps explain why policies like carbon taxes are less popular than cap and trade, since the transparency of the price signal in the former makes it easier for people to connect the policy to a rise in energy prices (Jaccard, 2012). While these incentives may partially explain the relative scarcity of climate policy innovations (Howlett, 2014), the modest level of existing carbon prices (Jenkins et al., 2016), and why only 13% of global emissions were covered by a carbon price in 2015 (World Bank, 2016), they also raise the question of just how unpopular carbon prices really are, and whether politicians may have any incentive to adopt them in an effort to claim credit for particular benefits related to climate policy.

Public Opinion on Carbon Pricing

Existing research has examined public attitudes across a range of climate policy instruments and suggests that public opinion can be an obstacle in the way of adopting a carbon price. In general, these studies have consistently found that more punitive “push” measures (like carbon prices) are less popular than “pull” measures (like subsidies) designed to encourage mitigation behavior (Steg, 2006; Drews & van den Bergh, 2016). Examining data from nationally representative surveys conducted in the United States, a number of studies document the poor polling performance of carbon pricing instruments relative to alternative, less efficient but more popular policies like regulations (Ansolabehere & Konisky, 2014; Stoutenborough et al., 2014). This research suggests that incidence matters, with tax increases on gasoline and electricity consistently garnering the lowest amount of support across studies (Leiserowitz, 2006; Dietz et al., 2007; Krosnick & MacInnis, 2013), likely due to the salience of energy prices for businesses and consumers and to related concerns around costs (Shwom et al., 2010).

Differing substantially in terms of sample composition and measurement strategy, research conducted outside of the United States has similarly found carbon price instruments to be less popular than alternative policies in such different contexts as Austria, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom (Dresner, 2006b; Carson et al., 2010; Bostrom et al., 2012; Brannlund & Persson, 2012; Lachapelle et al., 2012; Tobler et al., 2012; Lam, 2015). Moreover, while members of the public generally prefer upstream and downstream approaches to carbon trading over carbon taxes, all forms of carbon pricing tend to be politically divisive and unpopular, though their design can significantly improve levels of support (Bird & Lockwood, 2009; Bristow et al., 2010). This research further suggests that people tend to perceive carbon pricing and other push measures as ineffective at reducing emissions (Steg, 2006; Bostrom et al., 2012) and that they fundamentally misunderstand and are skeptical of revenue recycling options like tax shifting, failing to see the benefits of income tax decreases for the environment and perceiving these efforts as a “trick” to increase government revenue (Dresner, 2006a). Mirroring the challenge of making climate change salient for the public (Moser & Dilling, 2007), this research points to people’s limited willingness to pay for mitigating the climate change threat as a key barrier toward carbon price support. Overall, these insights point to popular perceptions of carbon pricing as all pain and no gain, and suggests putting greater emphasis on the positive benefits of carbon pricing—for reducing emissions but also for achieving other societal goals—to deepen support for carbon pricing.

While carbon pricing typically receives the lowest level of support among policies examined across countries, this does not imply that levels of support and opposition toward carbon pricing are the same across time and space. Drawing on large probabilistic samples of the American and Canadian populations, for instance, Lachapelle, Borick, and Rabe (2012) found significantly greater (majority) support for carbon pricing in Canada, while carbon cap-and-trade programs tend to be more popular than carbon taxes in both countries. Comparing mean scores across the policy support measures obtained from convenience samples in Austria, Bangladesh, Finland, Germany, Norway, and the United States, carbon taxes appear to receive greater support among people located in Finland and Norway (Bostrom et al., 2012), a pattern that may help explain why carbon taxes have been so durable in Scandinavian countries that have traditionally been more open to trading off higher taxation levels in exchange for the more expansive provision of public goods (Esping-Anderson, 1990). Other research has used multilevel regression and poststratification methods to develop estimates of carbon price opinions at the local level, highlighting greater carbon price support in urban centers and along the coasts, while opposition to carbon pricing tends to be concentrated in areas that produce fossil fuels (Howe et al., 2015; Mildenberger et al., 2016). In one of the rare longitudinal studies, Rabe and Borick (2014) found that opposition to state-level carbon taxes, gasoline taxes, and carbon cap-and-trade programs increased between 2008 and 2013, roughly corresponding to the great recession and the failure to pass comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress. Overall, this research suggests that under some conditions and in some contexts, there may in fact be more support for carbon pricing than is commonly assumed.

In this context of variable carbon price support, research has sought to identify the social and political factors shaping public attitudes toward these policies and has identified several correlates that may be categorized as sociopsychological, perceived policy attributes and contextual drivers (Drews & van den Bergh et al., 2016). In terms of sociopsychological factors, perhaps the most robust finding across observational and experimental studies conducted in various national contexts is the tendency for carbon price support to be greater among those on the political left, or people who hold egalitarian, altruistic, and environmental values or world views (Leiserowitz, 2006; Dietz et al., 2007; Harring & Jagers, 2013; Krosnick & MacInnis, 2013; Unsworth & Fielding, 2014). Although carbon price policies are by definition market based, those adhering to free market and a more politically conservative ideology are ironically more likely to oppose carbon pricing (Leiserowitz, 2006; Dreyer & Walker, 2013). This result may be explained by opponents’ framing of carbon pricing as unnatural market distortions and unjustified government intervention that benefits a “climatism cartel” of particular scientific, government, economic, and civil society interests (Bohr, 2016). Beyond these powerful ideological forces, cognitive factors like climate change beliefs, attribution of human cause, level of concern, feelings of personal and moral responsibility, personal efficacy, as well as having a low discount rate all contribute to greater carbon price support (O’Connor et al., 1999; Dietz et al., 2007; Lubell et al., 2007; Brouwer et al., 2008; Pietsch & McAllister, 2010; Akter & Bennett, 2011; Krosnick & MacInnis, 2013; Ambdur et al., 2015; Lam, 2015), while affective imagery and emotions such as worry similarly increase the acceptability of carbon prices and climate policies more generally (Leiserowitz, 2006; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2014).

A second set of factors shaping attitudes toward carbon pricing is found in the perceived attributes of the policies themselves. For instance, perceptions that such policies are fair and equitable, as well as perceptions that carbon pricing produces net relative benefits, have been found to be among the strongest correlates of carbon price support (Hammar & Jagers, 2007; Dreyer & Walker, 2013; Lam, 2015). In particular, carbon pricing receives significantly greater support among those who perceive these policies as more effective for climate change mitigation (Brouwer et al., 2008; Akter & Bennett, 2011; Dreyer et al., 2015). Consistent with the notion of pocketbook politics, several studies have found that the perceived financial and behavioral costs of carbon pricing constitute an important barrier, especially in cases where few alternatives to emissions-generating behavior exist (Shwom et al., 2010; de Groot & Schuitema, 2012; Tobler et al., 2012). In the context of these results, there is some debate around such questions as (a) Is mitigating the climate change threat sufficient on its own for building carbon price support? (b) Does emphasizing the relative balance of costs and benefits of different climate policies shift opinion in favor of carbon pricing over alternative policies? And (c) Should communicators avoid the language of costs altogether? (Jagers & Hammar, 2009; Ansolabehere & Konisky, 2014; Stoknes, 2014; Bernauer & McGrath, 2016).

Another body of research points to the role of contextual factors in shaping attitudes toward carbon pricing. One of the most robust findings in this area of research relates to the importance of trust (or lack thereof) in governments, scientists, and environmental groups as important drivers of carbon price public opinion (Dresner et al., 2006b; Hammar & Jagers, 2006; Jagers et al., 2010; Kallbekken et al., 2011; Fairbrother, 2017). A number of other studies also point to the role of social norms in shaping climate policy preferences, with studies documenting how perceived levels of cooperation and support from other community members contributes to public attitudes toward carbon pricing (Akter & Bennett, 2011; de Groot & Schuitema, 2012; Hurlstone et al., 2014; Bolsen et al., 2014). In addition, perceptions of personal financial and macroeconomic conditions are also important, with support being greater when individual perceptions of the economy are more positive (Bornstein & Thalmann, 2008; Dienes, 2015), while climate change–related weather events have also been found to shape climate policy support (Owen et al., 2012; Park & Vedlitz, 2013), which may help explain the concentration of carbon price support found on the coasts (e.g., Mildenberger et al., 2016). While pointing to the importance of context and tailoring messages in ways that resonate with such macro-level considerations, this research also suggests that the relatively more homogenous social and political makeup of smaller communities may provide a more politically amenable context for carbon pricing at lower scales.

Overall, insights from these observational studies of carbon price public opinion provides a profile of a carbon price supporter as someone who is urban, with a progressive (i.e., left of center) political ideology and values, who perceives anthropocentric climate change as a threat, who believes that something can and should be done to limit GHG emissions, trusts government and other actors, and who is convinced that carbon pricing is fair and effective. Beyond concerns with financial and behavioral costs, this literature also points to the possibility that negative public attitudes are a product of the way in which carbon price policies are currently presented and framed (Jagers & Hammar, 2009). Existing research thus raises important questions regarding how to build public confidence in the effectiveness of carbon pricing and political trust in the governments that implement them, how to link carbon pricing to local, visible benefits (including which of these benefits besides climate change reduction to emphasize), whether and how to communicate the (potentially cheaper) costs of carbon pricing relative to alternatives, and whether and how to frame messages that may highlight the ideological congruence between carbon pricing and conservative values. In turn, such questions have led to greater scholarly attention to the role of communication and framing in climate policy debate.

Strategies: Communicating Around Carbon Pricing

Climate change is a complex, multidimensional problem forcing governments to contemplate controversial policy solutions (Nisbet, 2009). Considering the multitude of issue dimensions and values at play, much research has examined the role of frames and framing in shaping public opinion around climate change and climate policy. While these “frames” can be thought of as interpretive packages that allow individuals to process information more efficiently, “issue framing” in a communicative context may be defined as the process of selecting some aspects of an issue over others, making them more salient so as to promote particular interpretations of issues, problems and solutions (Entman, 1993; Nisbet, 2009). For the most part, research on the framing of climate policy relies on experiments conducted in the context of survey research or in the lab, though several qualitative case studies also provide some analysis of elite framing around carbon pricing in a competitive framing environment. This research has sparked some debate over whether carbon price support requires a well-informed public, whether communicating different policy attributes can move public opinion, and which frames, if any, may best succeed in bridging the ideological divide and increase overall political support.

Knowledge Deficits, Policy Attributes, and Revenue Use

One of the more robust findings in the literature relates to the public’s low level of attention and skepticism toward carbon pricing. Focus-group research has found that people generally see few benefits of environmental tax reforms, are skeptical of government attempts at making them revenue neutral, seek incentives that reward good behavior as opposed to relying solely on coercion, and given the opportunity, express a desire to learn more about how such policies work (Dresner et al., 2006b; Kallbekken & Aasen, 2010). Other research shows that the public is largely unaware of carbon price policies like carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade programs, even (surprisingly) in places where they are in place (Rhodes et al., 2014; Lachapelle, 2015). In this context, scholars have debated whether support for carbon pricing is greater among the more informed public, and whether framing around particular policy attributes may increase support for carbon pricing.

In some of the earliest work examining climate policy support, two separate studies conducted by O’Connor et al. (1999) and by Bord, O’Connor and Fisher (2000) found that pre-existing knowledge of climate change causes is an important predictor of policy acceptability (measured with an index that includes price-based policies), presumably because this knowledge helps people better understand the rationale for climate action. Other studies examining different sorts of climate change related information, however, have produced different results. Drawing on an RDD telephone survey conducted in Australia in 2008, one study found that opinions on the proposed emissions trading system tended to polarize among those who reported being very well informed of the problem of global warming (Pietsch & McAllister, 2010), while another study conducted in the United States found that providing information on the regional effects of climate change in the context of a survey did not increase support for mitigation policy (Shwom et al., 2008). Beyond this general knowledge of the climate change problem, a study conducted in British Columbia suggests that citizen awareness of the carbon tax is unrelated to its support, and that, at least in the context of a within-subjects survey experiment, carbon price opinion is relatively resistant to expert cues regarding policy effectiveness (Rhodes et al., 2014).

Challenging the “knowledge deficit model” of opinion formation, this research suggests that greater knowledge and awareness is not necessarily related to greater carbon price support. Indeed, the idea that carbon tax awareness is unrelated to support may simply reflect the fact that well-informed people often disagree on matters of policy, particularly on such controversial matters as taxation policy. Along these lines, Dunlap (1998) long ago questioned the need for a well-informed citizenry for the enactment of climate policy, suggesting a passive consensus is all that is required, given the lay public’s reliance on heuristics when forming opinions on highly technical issues, like climate change. Consistent with this, policy makers do not appear to go out of their way to advertise their carbon prices, and where they have, evidence suggests such campaigns can backfire, as witnessed in the case of British Columbia’s $100 climate action dividend distributed before the tax was implemented (viewed by some as a political bribe), or by the same government’s efforts to frame their policy as “revenue neutral” (interpreted by many as implying limited incidence on households as opposed to being revenue neutral from the perspective of government) (Gunster, 2010). In another infamous example, Stéphane Dion fought the 2008 Canadian federal election on a proposed carbon tax, which conservative attack ads (Figure 3) effectively framed as a tax grab, despite the fact that it specifically promised millions in rebates and tax cuts (Flanagan, 2012).

Communicating about Carbon Taxes and Emissions Trading ProgramsClick to view larger

Figure 3. Conservative Party of Canada attack ad on Stéphane Dion’s proposed carbon tax, 2008.

While these findings suggest staying away from communicating policy details because the relatively sophisticated nature of carbon pricing instruments makes them vulnerable to attack, an impressive amount of empirical work also suggests that policy attribute framing can substantially increase carbon price support. For instance, numerous studies have found that, while specifying costs in the context of survey research tends to decrease support for climate policy, this can actually serve to decrease the relative gap between regulation and carbon pricing approaches to mitigation (Rabe & Borick, 2012b). Given the public’s sensitivity to energy prices, some politicians have sought to be upfront about costs (so that opponents do not do it for them), attempting to reassure voters by likening the effect of carbon prices on the average citizen to a cup of coffee per week (Heurtel, 2014) or to a postage stamp per day (EPA, 2010). However, as Ansolabehere and Konisky (2014) demonstrate, the persistent gap in support for regulations over pricing is also explained by the failure of people to intuitively connect carbon pricing to broader, more tangible energy and environmental benefits (e.g. cleaner air), which suggests that messaging should address the non-climate cobenefits of carbon pricing as opposed to focusing narrowly on the cost of avoiding future climate damage.

Building on insights from the transportation policy literature, other research points to the importance of providing information on targeted revenue use to increase the policy’s perceived credibility and effectiveness (Steg, 2006; Kallbekken & Aasen, 2010), thus addressing one of the crucial barriers to support among some segments of the public. In fact, while economists emphasize the efficiency benefits of using revenue to finance tax cuts on labor and capital (Bovenberg, 1999), and others suggest returning carbon price revenues directly to citizens in some form of dividend (Hansen, 2015), polling has consistently found that earmarking carbon price revenues for green infrastructure and technology garner significantly greater support (Kallbekken & Aasen, 2010; Lachapelle et al., 2012; Leiserowitz et al., 2014). Numerous studies employing diverse measures have found that earmarking revenue for green infrastructure can substantially increase the public’s acceptability of carbon taxes (Carson et al., 2010; Amdur et al., 2014), gasoline taxes (Hsu et al., 2008; Kaplowitz & McCright, 2015), carbon cap-and-trade programs (Mills et al., 2015; Lachapelle, 2015), as well as for personal carbon trading (Bristow et al., 2010), though these effects have been found to be conditioned by partisanship (Puskin & Mills, 2017) and political trust (Fairbrother, 2017), and such practice risks creating unhealthy conflict among pro-climate groups for more resources in exchange for their support. Nevertheless, some case studies suggest it is more difficult for governments to claim credit for environmental benefits when revenues are used to finance largely invisible, revenue-neutral tax swaps (Gunster, 2010). From this perspective, communication around the attributes of the policy (e.g. using revenues to fund green infrastructure) and highlighting the tangible environmental benefits of such revenue use can help build policy credibility (if revenues are used to achieve environmental goals) and build constituency support (if revenues are strategically distributed to maximize the coalition’s size). Laying such groundwork is especially important if carbon prices are expected to rise over time, in which case a passive consensus around carbon pricing may no longer suffice (Kallbekken & Aasen, 2010; Meckling et al., 2015; Rabe, 2016).

Policy Labeling and Carbon Pricing by Stealth

Other research has similarly examined the role of policy attribute framing, but with a focus on the conceptual frames activated by alternative policy labels (Lakoff, 2010; Matthews, 2010). Findings from this research tend to converge on the idea that certain words (e.g., “tax”) are less conducive to garnering public support. Drawing on a survey experiment administered to a sample of Americans, Hardisty et al. (2010) found that, faced with the choice between identical products and services (e.g., gasoline, airline tickets, and computers), Republicans and Independents were significantly less likely to opt for the product that integrated an environmental surcharge as opposed to selecting the cheaper option when labeled a “tax” as opposed to a “fee.” For Democrats, this framing had no effect. In a different national context (ostensibly more accepting of taxation), Brannlund and Persson (2012) examined Swedish attitudes toward various climate policy instruments and found that policies labeled “tax” garner significantly lower support across the entire sample.

The public’s general aversion to the “t” word is somewhat nuanced in two additional studies. Manipulating only the policy label in a population-based survey experiment, Kotchen et al. (2013) found no significant difference in mean willingness to pay for “cap-and-trade” and “carbon tax” treatments, suggesting that the public is as reluctant to pay for mitigation policy regardless of the labeling as a tax. In another study, Kallbekken, Kroll, and Cherry (2011), found the tax label lowered support (relative to the less ominous term “fee”), but this effect was conditioned by policy design, such that the effect was most pronounced in the absence of targeted revenue use.

Other research on carbon price support in the United Kingdom found that explicit mention of the term “carbon” in policy labels can amplify the behavioral salience of these policies (Parag et al., 2011), a result also found when looking at the inflated effect of the British Columbia carbon tax on gasoline consumption relative to what may be expected from an equivalent rise in gasoline prices (Murray & Rivers, 2015). Meanwhile, an experiment in the United States found that describing the increase costs of climate change mitigation in terms of higher “taxes” as opposed to higher “prices” on gasoline had no effect on levels of public support (Villar & Krosnick, 2011). While these different findings may be explained by the differences in terms used (e.g., taxes versus prices versus fees), some openly question the extent to which the public can be so easily fooled by such simple relabeling in the real world (Dion, 2013).

Nevertheless, research on actual policy labels employed in the political arena suggests the labeling strategy is important. Analyzing policies across Canada and the United States, Rabe and Borick (2012a) document the tendency of governments to avoid explicit reference to “carbon” and “taxes” in the labels attached to policies that otherwise impose direct costs on GHG emissions-generating behavior, a strategy that may be labeled carbon pricing by stealth. Considering the public’s aversion to taxes, pro-carbon pricing leaders in various contexts have gone to great lengths in trying to avoid the “t” word, labeling their policies a “carbon pollution reduction scheme” (Australia), an “energy-climate contribution” (France), or simply a “carbon price” (Canada). Alternative labels, including “carbon fee” and “climate levy” have been used in such places as Alberta and the United Kingdom, while the “fee and dividend” label is prominent among carbon price advocates (Hansen, 2015).

Meanwhile, opportunistic political actors—on both the left and right—have not shied away from exploiting concerns around perceived unfairness and economic costs in order to leverage political and electoral gains (Houle, 2014). In particular, opponents have exploited the public’s aversion to the imposition of costs, reframing carbon price proposals as “unfair,” “job-killing,” “taxes on everything” that “trick” people into accepting government “cash grabs” or with carbon cap-and-trade programs, the policy is simply relabeled “cap-and-tax” (Palin, 2009; Flanagan, 2012; Rootes, 2014). In one of the few cases where a politician has been brave enough to assume the tax frame, British Columbia premier went out of his way to frame his carbon tax in terms of revenue neutrality, tax cuts, and consumer choice. While surviving an electoral defeat, in part because any alienated conservative voters had no place to go, the BC Liberal government’s focus on revenue neutrality has been criticized for evacuating the intrinsic environmental rationale for the tax, activating a personal self-interest frame (Gunster, 2010) that has inadvertently contributed to the freezing of the British Columbia carbon tax at 2012 levels despite calls for increasing its rate (BC Climate Action Team, 2015).1

Issue Framing and Boomerangs

Beyond information provision, attribute framing, and policy labeling, others have debated whether reframing the climate change issue—and which justification for climate policy—can best move public support on climate policy. Given the fundamentally scientific nature of the problem and the role of scientific bodies like the IPCC in advising governments, communicating about climate change has largely emphasized the likely consequences of inaction for present and future generations. While the efficacy of such framing around climate change risk—and related emphasis on catastrophic consequences—has been debated in the literature (Moser & Dilling, 2007; O’Neil & Nicholson-Cole, 2009), a number of voices within the environmental community have called for the purging of doom and gloom discourse in favor of the “politics of possibility” (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007; Gunster, 2010).

Among the numerous studies that explore the scientific risk framing, several have provided support for the idea that framing around benefits (as opposed to losses) and communicating local (as opposed to distant consequences) can help increase support for climate policy. While much evidence suggests losses should weigh heavier than gains when making risky choices (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984), some research has found that gain frames can better motivate prevention behavior, of which climate mitigation is an example (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). In an experiment administered to psychology majors in the United Kingdom, Spence and Pidgeon (2010) found that emphasizing potential gains (e.g., preventing floods and sea-level rise) as opposed to losses (e.g., more floods and further sea-level rise) produced more positive evaluations of climate change mitigation. Another study conducted on a representative sample of Australians found similar effects in support for mitigation when framing around gains as opposed to losses, though this study also found that the effect is moderated by social norms messaging regarding the climate policy preferences of others (Hurlstone et al., 2014). Similar results were found in a large community sample of residents of British Columbia, Canada: Gifford and Comeau (2011) found that priming positive benefits from climate action—as opposed to priming necessary sacrifices—led to greater perceived competence, engagement and likelihood of engaging in several behavioral practices. In another study conducted in the United States, Wiest et al. (2015) provided evidence to suggest that framing climate change around local (as opposed to distant) consequences increased support for some, though not all, measures of climate policy support.

Existing research also looks closely at whether and how messages can be tailored to broaden climate policy support across a divided public. Analyzing experimental data from a nationally representative sample of Australians, Bain et al. (2012) found that framing climate change mitigation in terms of potential gains—for community cohesion or scientific and economic development—as opposed to preventing potential losses (e.g,. food and water shortages) led to a greater willingness to partake in pro-environmental actions among climate change skeptics. In a follow-up study, university student samples from around the world were asked to imagine a future where mitigation had occurred, with development and community cobenefits eliciting the greatest effect on opinion across convinced and unconvinced publics (Bain et al., 2016). In another study conducted on an MTurk sample, Campbell and Kay (2014) found that support for climate policy is significantly higher among Republicans when the policy is described as “market friendly” as opposed to being a “regulatory restriction.”

The possibility of bridging the climate policy divide, however, is contested by other research that has provided substantial evidence of “boomerang effects” (Hart & Nisbet, 2012), or cases in which framing to the values of a particular target group backfires. Examining data from a representative sample of people living in the United States, Myers et al. (2012) found that messages emphasizing the public health benefits from mitigation helped elicit emotional reactions (i.e., hope) that are consistent with climate action, while a national security frame (ostensibly more consistent with conservative ideology) provoked feelings of anger among more skeptical segments of the population. In another study, Severson and Coleman (2015) found significant “main effects” for frames emphasizing climate change consequences, humanistic moral values, and equity concerns, while frames emphasizing conservative values—like economic efficiency—actually decreased support among conservatives. Other research has similarly provided strong evidence of boomerang effects among self-identified Republicans, soliciting greater opposition to a composite policy measure (that included taxes as a component) when messages emphasized particular reasons for action, even those thought to be consistent with conservative values (e.g., national security or economic freedom), and regardless of whether messages were attributed to a Republican or Democratic source (Zhou, 2016). Although it may be possible that participants pick up on certain cues provided in survey experiments, giving the impression that researchers are trying to coopt particular values in a dis-honest way (Myers et al., 2012), results from this research provide evidence that is consistent with theories of cultural cognition, motivated reasoning, and biased assimilation (Kahan et al., 2011), and point to the role of the polarized climate change debate in shaping public opinion on climate policy (at least in the United States). These findings thus raise important questions regarding the extent to which similar levels of polarization and ideologically motivated reasoning are to be found in other contexts.

While numerous studies have provided evidence of framing effects, the weak, mixed, and unintended boomerangs point to the limits of reframing the climate change and climate policy debate. Indeed, some published research suggests that reframing climate change messages may have little impact on policy opinion. For instance, with the exception of an energy security message increasing support for renewable energy expansion in the United Kingdom, Lockwood (2011) found null results for the eight other frames tested across different policies. Testing the effects of four different frames—climate risk reduction, economic cobenefits, community building, and public health—Bernauer and McGrath (2016) found no evidence of framing effects on three outcome measures—including a composite measure of climate policy support—and the absence of these effects is constant across a broad variety of population segments. In light of the role played by political ideology and partisan identity in opinion formation, these studies suggest it may be unrealistic to expect simple message framing to significantly alter carbon price support, especially in a fragmented media environment and in places where climate change is highly politicized, as individuals may be substantially pretreated and are likely to engage in various forms of ideologically and identity-based reasoning (Bernauer & McGrath, 2016) This is especially true in places like the United States, where the rise of Republican extremism makes climate policy communication particularly difficult (Skocpol, 2013). Because much of the existing climate policy and climate change communication has been framed around liberal values of harm prevention and justice (Markowitz & Shariff, 2012), considerable debate and uncertainty remains regarding which framing strategies and normative appeals to use, whether and how to address the saliency of climate policy costs, and which segments of the population to target.

Outcomes: Determinants of Success

The political and scholarly attention to the power of words and frames may suggest that public opinion is an important factor in the success or failure of carbon price proposals and that communication strategies are key. The existing literature on the determinants of carbon pricing, however, tends to place more emphasis on the role of grassroots mobilization, coalition building, political parties, and policy entrepreneurs (Midttun & Hagen, 1997; Daugbjerg & Pedersen, 2004; Skocpol, 2013). Where the public is considered, scholars usually examine the role of electoral incentives in the context of particular institutional configurations, suggesting that public opinion interacts with things like party and electoral systems (Harrison, 2010; Lachapelle, 2011). Meanwhile, empirical case-based and quantitative research examining the role of actual political strategies and elite communication around carbon pricing lags significantly behind (and sometimes contradict) survey research and studies conducted in the lab. As a result, much less is known about the role of public opinion in determining the fate of carbon pricing, or the content and efficacy of communication strategies commonly used in the real world. Nevertheless, emerging insights from the literature on the politics of carbon pricing allows for some consideration of factors contributing to successful proposals.

Policy Entrepreneurs, Political Ideology, and Media Framing

Existing research identifies the role of policy entrepreneurship as a key driver in proposing and implementing climate policy (Rabe, 2004; Harrison, 2010, 2012). These actors draw on a number of resources, including international norms and the work of epistemic communities that advocate market-based solutions (Bernstein, 2002), as well as on academic economists who legitimize and frame carbon pricing policies in a way that addresses domestic economic concerns (Gunster, 2010; Harrison, 2012; Voß & Simons, 2014). For instance, Rabe (2004) demonstrates how particular ways of framing the climate change problem and solutions can help guide policy entrepreneurs in their selection and design of appropriate policy tools, while Ansolabehere and Konisky (2014) suggest framing California’s landmark climate policy—AB 32—more broadly around public health, local pollution, and the development of clean industry was crucial in ensuring the durability of this legislation when it became the subject of a ballot proposition in 2010. Analyzing how proponents of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeastern United States reframed the atmosphere as a common resource, Raymond (2016) also highlights the advantages of framing climate policy around cobenefits, with proponent’s arguments that the public should benefit from auctioned emissions permits playing a crucial role in building political support.

While ideology plays an important role in shaping patterns of public support, the relationship between carbon pricing and the political ideology of governments that implement these policies is not always so clear-cut. To be sure, the empirical record provides several examples of political leaders on the right implementing carbon prices in diverse contexts (Houle et al., 2015; Boyd, 2017). However, evidence also points to partisan elites using carbon pricing as a political wedge. In fact, experience in Canada has shown that carbon pricing initiatives remain vulnerable to political attack from the left (via claims that carbon pricing can be unfair and regressive) as well as from the right (via claims that carbon pricing creates negative economic impacts with limited environmental effect). For instance, during the Canadian general election of 2008, former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper demonized the revenue-neutral carbon tax proposed by Liberal Party challenger, Stéphane Dion, despite having proposed a cap-and-trade program for large emitters just a few years earlier. Moreover, research suggests that when they chose to support carbon pricing, political actors on the right have a distinct political advantage because they are less vulnerable to being attacked on economic issues, making it easier for them to create an interparty consensus on climate change (Houle, 2014). This was the case in British Columbia, where a right-of-center government facing no threat from the right framed its carbon tax around revenue neutrality, tax cuts and consumer choice, or in a way that fit with its ideology, brand, and the priorities of its electoral base. Whereas any frustrated voters on the right had no place to go, the unsuccessful “axe the tax” campaign put forth by the left-of-center British Columbia New Democratic Party contributed to its electoral defeat in part because this framing alienated its traditionally progressive and environmental supporters (Gunster, 2010; Harrison, 2012).

Meanwhile, less attention has been paid to journalistic accounts of carbon pricing and to the role of media coverage of climate policy more generally. While this lack of media and scholarly attention is perhaps unsurprising—because carbon price debates offer journalists little in terms of a sensational story—this lack of scholarly attention is a significant shortcoming, given the mass media’s role in informing the public on the climate change issue (Trumbo & Shanahan, 2000). In terms of the content of media coverage of carbon pricing, the few (non–peer-reviewed) studies that exist suggest the press offers inadequate coverage of key carbon-price debates, often misrepresenting the nature of the economic debate (Pooley, 2009) or otherwise providing overwhelmingly negative coverage of carbon price policies (Bacon, 2011). Existing peer-reviewed research further suggests that exposure to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” helped increase awareness of climate policy issues (Speck, 2010) and enhanced carbon price support (Löfgren & Nordblom, 2010; Akter & Bennett, 2011), while others have reported that attention to scientific and environmental news helps predict support for climate policy more generally (Zhao et al., 2011; Hart et al., 2015). While providing some evidence to suggest that media attention plays a role in increasing awareness and garnering support, a paucity of published scholarly work examines the actual content of media framing of climate policy, the potential role it plays in shaping the content and outcomes of key societal debates, and fails to offer direct tests of the effects of media exposure on public perceptions of carbon prices more generally.

The Role of Public Opinion

Much of the research examining the politics of carbon pricing highlights the growing salience of environmental issues amongst the public in the mid 2000s as a key moment in triggering climate policy innovation (Harrison, 2012; Jaccard, 2012). However, the role of public opinion in fashioning carbon price outcomes appears more complex. In some cases, members of the public are relatively unaware of these policies, even in places where they exist (Rhodes et al., 2014), suggesting that public opinion may not be that big of a driver after all. Yet at certain key moments—during elections, referendums, or after implementation—one may assume that public opinion plays a more important role, especially when carbon pricing is contested or used by political elites as a political wedge.

Existing research suggests that, at certain key moments, public opinion played some role in rejecting particular carbon price proposals (Dion, 2013; Rootes, 2014) and in saving others (Clarke et al., 2015), though these outcomes cannot be entirely reduced to public preferences for carbon pricing alone (Clarke et al., 2011; Harrison, 2012). During these moments, several factors—including political institutions, elite communication, and contextual factors—can moderate the role of public opinion. For instance, one may expect the public to play less of a role, and elite opinion to matter more, where institutions like Parliamentary democracy concentrate political power (thus making it easier for elites to implement their preferred policy solutions), while the opposite should hold in institutional contexts that diffuse power through more direct forms of democracy (Houle et al., 2015). The role of public opinion is also likely conditioned by elite cues and preferences to increase the relative weight of partisan endorsements and interparty consensus (Bornstein & Thalmann, 2008; Stadelmann-Steffen, 2011). The geographic distribution of public opinion, and prevailing economic conditions, may also moderate the role of public opinion in determining carbon pricing outcomes, favoring their implementation in economic good times (Dienes, 2015) and at scales characterized by relatively more socially and politically homogenous publics (Lachapelle et al., 2012; Mildenberger et al., 2016). While more stringent climate policy appears more feasible in regions that can export the costs of mitigation (Harrison, 2013), several fossil fuel producing jurisdictions have imposed carbon prices on substantial parts of their population (e.g., Norway and British Columbia). In the end, public opinion is for the most part an important background condition, reflecting the general ethos of particular political communities (Gunster, 2010; Jaccard, 2012), thus providing in some cases and at some moments a political resource for policy entrepreneurs to forge coalitions and push for their preferred policy solutions in a more hospitable context (Harrison, 2010, 2012). Considering the complex interactions at play, more careful empirical work is required to examine the hypothesis that the relative influence of elites versus the public in determining the success of climate policy proposals is moderated by political-institutional context (e.g., party systems, electoral systems, or direct democracy), as well as by the degree of homogeneity in preferences within the public and among elites.

Conclusion: Advancing the Science

A wide, interdisciplinary body of work spanning the fields of economics, political science, and psychology is beginning to address the communication dimension of carbon pricing. While this literature is instructive, a variety of mixed and contradictory results within and across studies make the accumulation of knowledge a challenge. This situation reflects the wide range of approaches (e.g., qualitative policy case studies vs. quantitative analyses of public opinion), experimental manipulations (e.g., videos, simulated news articles, question word changes and priming with a battery of questions), samples (from small convenience samples to large nationally representative ones), and outcome measures (both single item and composite indices that may or may not refer to carbon pricing) that make comparison across studies difficult. Moreover, the substantial evidence of pretreatment (e.g., “boomerang”) effects further suggests that attention to context is key.

To the extent that existing frames are the product of social constructions that vary in space and time, greater effort toward more expansive and systematic comparative analysis, including longitudinal panel studies, would provide an opportunity to examine communication strategies that are most likely to work in fluctuating economic or across different political environments. Greater attention to social context may also help scholars identify the range of frames employed by different actors (cf. McCright & Dunlap, 2000; Boussalis & Coan, 2016), develop more natural experimental treatments, explore interactions between elite level messaging and the reception to these messages across audiences, and provide a better answer to the question of whether framing can be decisive, or whether it is epiphenomenal in climate policy debate. In particular, the diffusion of carbon pricing in non-Western states (e.g., China and South Africa) provides opportunities for researchers to expand existing scholarship to other regions of the world, helping to shed light on the power and limits of communication in different (potentially less politicized) contexts.

The current state of scholarship also provides numerous opportunities for researchers to build bridges to integrate knowledge from otherwise disparate areas. This may involve greater engagement across disciplines to develop and use standardized measures that have been validated, as well as a commitment to transparency and public access of data for the purposes of replication. There are also clear links to be made across the literature, including greater integration and attention to work conducted in the public policy (to catalogue the framing strategies used and the outcomes produced) and public opinion scholarly communities, and in the literature on climate science and climate policy communication. Finally, given the range of actors interested in climate policy communication, scholars should take advantage of the numerous climate communication practitioners (e.g., see the Climate Advocacy Lab, among others), which provide scholars with opportunities to take ideas from the lab and survey research and test them in the field.

Substantively, the current state of the literature on carbon price and climate policy communication provides numerous opportunities for research in this area. Scholars may wish (a) to catalogue the frames employed by governments, advocacy, and opponent communication strategies, (b) to determine the conditions under which these frames are more persuasive, and (c) to consider whether and how communication strategies converge through diffusion and learning processes as proponents and opponents adjust their strategies, frames and counterframes across space and time. Moreover, attention should be given to the content and effects of journalistic frames employed by media coverage of the carbon price debate, the extent to which the evolution of elite framing around climate policy corresponds to ebbs and flows in policy support, and which actors are best positioned to frame carbon price proposals for which audiences. Others may investigate the role of affective imagery in shaping support for carbon pricing, the relative efficacy and duration of different strategies across space and time, and whether or not communicating the economic consensus around carbon pricing has any influence on public opinion. Such research would considerably advance the science of carbon price communication, specifying the opportunities and limits of strategic framing as a means of enhancing support for an elegant yet politically contested policy idea.


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(1.) The British Columbia Liberal Party—responsible for introducing the BC carbon tax in 2008—won an election in 2013 on a platform that promised to freeze the level of its carbon tax for 5 years.