Language matters: The carbon tax edition

Today is the day the carbon tax takes effect in Canada, and I can’t help but notice it’s also April Fool’s day.

But the carbon tax is not a joke. Instead it’s an attempt, backed by solid economics research (article paywall), to cut greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on the burning of fossil fuels.

Shell Gas Station
“Shell Gas Station” by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC by 2.0

Of course, this means that today, the Canadian news is covering the roll out of this initiative with great gusto (see here, here, here, and here, to name just a few). Coverage abounds on both sides, and opponents of this carbon pricing strategy are using the opportunity to develop creative campaigns of their own in order to shore up public opposition. And I would suggest that people against carbon pricing already have their work half done for them. Language matters, and the use of “tax” to roll out carbon pricing makes public support a more difficult sell.

By way of example, I’d like to provide a very non-scientific anecdote. Last summer, I was speaking with a friend of mine who used to be a climate change denier, but later had changed their mind. I was able to ask what it was that finally got through to this person. Was it an abundance of evidence? A clever advertising campaign? The PR efforts of pro-environmental celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio? My friend told me simply, their change of heart was brought about by a change in language (or naming). When climate change was referred to as global warming, they couldn’t relate, since they didn’t see evidence of warming in their daily life. But when popular discourse began to switch from global warming to climate change, my friend could finally understand and see evidence of this phenomenon occurring around them. Truly, a change in language helped guide a change in perception. It influenced the ability of this person to perceive changes that were unnoticed before they were named.

This is common in human perception. To name something is to provide it with meaning. To name something helps it become part of our culture and influences our perception of the thing. Importantly, this means that what we name something matters greatly. Which brings us to the April 1 “carbon tax”.

In our current individualistic culture, nobody likes the word “tax”. Tax is thought of as the government taking people’s “hard earned” money and spending it wastefully on bureaucracy. Whether or not this is a true assessment of taxes (and I rather think it’s not), the fact remains that the current connotations of tax are mostly negative in our culture. This means that rolling out a “carbon tax” without any effort to influence public perception by naming carbon pricing something else is potentially politically challenging – particularly in an election year.

Personally, I support carbon pricing as an evidence-backed method of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, but I question the communication around this initiative. I think it gives opponents to carbon pricing to much of a head start in opposing it in public. Though opponents would likely end up calling this a “tax” regardless of what language was used to introduce carbon pricing to the public, the fact remains that this roll out was at an immediate disadvantage as a result of the language used to introduce it to the public. An income tax credit after the fact will not necessarily negate the initial first impression of a new “tax”.

Language matters: The carbon tax edition

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