A scheme by any other name…

May 7, 2009

It was a discussion that would have made George Bernard Shaw smile. The British Nobel Prize-winning writer said America and England were separated by their common language.

Such was evident recently during a panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. The panel focused on the effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions by trading carbon credits, commonly called a cap-and-trade scheme, and creating such a system in the United States.

That’s the rub, said Elizabeth Kanna, a marketing professional who said that “scheme” is an awful choice because, for most Americans, it means something sinister.

“Most Americans don’t understand carbon. It’s a confusing subject,” said Kanna. “You can’t convince Americans it’s a good idea by calling it a cap-and-trade ‘scheme’. I know ‘scheme’s’ a bad word. In other countries ‘scheme’ is not a bad word but you cannot create a global market using a word like ‘scheme’ that doesn’t work everywhere.”

To the British, scheme means a plan of action. Scheme is also used often for programs at the United Nations, where its meaning is neutral. But to Americans, it implies a plan of action in an underhanded way.

In fact, both definitions are correct. U.S. dictionary Merriam-Webster defines scheme as “a plan or program of action; especially: a crafty or secret one.” However, it also gives another definition: “a systematic or organized configuration.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives similar definitions, including “a secret or underhanded plan” and “a systematic plan”

“We have to come up with a better word,” said Kanna, who lives in Sacramento, California. “Here’s a story to illustrate my point. In January, I was in New York. In the cabs now, they have the news on flat screen.  On the bottom of the screen, it said, ‘Madoff Ponzi Scheme.’ It was a new assessment of the money lost. Scheme. At the same time, the cab driver has on the news and they said ‘The cap-and-trade scheme was going forward in Washington.’ ”

While “scheme” may not evoke images of green fields and clear skies for some, the word is a better choice than what has been used in the past, said Robert Hahn of the American Enterprise Institute.

“We’ve come a long way from ‘license to pollute,’ ” said Hahn, referring to the phrase common in the 1990s when the northeastern U.S. states formed a market to trade sulfur dioxide emissions in a successful effort to curb acid rain. (Nevermind that outside the United States, sulfur is spelled sulphur.)

“Carbon tax” is also a marketing non-starter, said Andrew Treusch of Environment Canada, the federal agency.

What do you think? Is this a serious concern? Should the use of scheme be capped? Scrapped?

Photo Credit: Reuters/Dan Riedlhuber (Petro-Canada’s Edmonton Refinery and Distribution Centre glows at dusk in Edmonton February 15, 2009)


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scheme is a great description, as cap-and-trade meets all definitions. a clean and healthy environment is in everyone’s interest; the politicising of such by the tax-and-spend control freaks on the left is in nobody’s interest but theirs

Posted by jd | Report as abusive

What does this say about Americans. We can’t act upon necessity unless people use the right words or talk to us in a pleasing manner. Or are we just that jaded and overly cynical.

More to the point cap and trade require integrity and stewardship in government oversight. Further, politicians would have to risk the temptation of viewing the “scheme” as nothing more than cash cow. I find that a tall order to fill considering economic conditions and the current group of seated officials. Out of a 787 billion dollar stimulus package (bomb) they only allocated 50 or 60 billion for energy and infrastructure. It is evident to me the only thing Washington takes seriously is election campaign fund raising.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I don’t think it says anything about Americans other than Kanna’s excellent observation that to many the word scheme has a negative connotation. As she point’s out Carbon Trading is a difficult concept to clearly articulate and when you’re trying to convince an already skeptical populace as to it’s validity referring to it as a “scheme” surely doesn’t help your position. This is an important issue, one that needs to be promoted successfully right out-the-gate, clouding the important discussion with dubious branding will impact a people already weary of climate change and wary of the stock-market, trading and government intervention. Let’s get this right!

Posted by Steve Allcock | Report as abusive