A disturbing meme has found its way into the national debate in recent months: cap and trade is the new public option, a complex, easy-to-mischaracterize policy prescription that has been cast as the focus of debate and therefore harmed the chances of passage for otherwise popular legislation.   

This topic came up in a discussion on Thursday, February 18th, hosted by Silicon Valley Bank, and featuring Congressman Jay Inslee (D-WA), a strong supporter of climate legislation, in conversation with several prominent cleantech VCs and entrepreneurs. [Disclaimer: I consult with SVB's cleantech practice; however, all views expressed herein are my own and not those of SVB.] While Rep. Inslee is well aligned with the cleantech VC community on policy, the discussion brought to light some critical differences on tactics.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES, a.k.a. Waxman-Markey) passed the House last June, but has been stuck in the Senate ever since. However, Inslee believes that passage of a meaningful bill is still possible in this session. As with health care reform, both Republican and Democratic polling has found that sizable majorities of Americans support a clean energy agenda -- one focused on energy independence, "green-collar" job creation, and tackling our carbon dependency through investment in renewable energy, alternative fuels, energy efficiency, and new technology. In fact, the numbers on clean energy are even better than health care -- with 20+ point majorities in favor. 

When asked what we in the cleantech community can do, he recommends working the halls of Congress and targeting key fence-sitters in the Senate, such as Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jim Webb (D-VA). He believes that if every Senator were to tour a cleantech employer in their state -- see the green glow of an algae biofuel plant, shake hands with workers on a wind turbine assembly line -- they would become an instant supporter of cap and trade. 

Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic, but I don't see much chance of this happening (either the tours or the change of opinion). 

How We Got Here

How did the climate agenda come unglued over the last year?  First, the health care battle dragged on all last summer and fall (and shows no signs of going away soon), sucking up all of the oxygen in Washington and severely depleting the Obama Administration's stores of political capital. Combined with the economic meltdown, the mandate of 2008 has become the deep malaise of 2010. 

In the meantime, last November there were (suspiciously well-timed) revelations of monkey business at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Though arguably minor by scientific standards, any perceived chink in the armor of climate science serves not only to embolden staunch deniers like James "We Won, You Lost, Get a Life" Inhofe (R-OK) but, far worse, gives cover to the larger ranks of mainstream conservatives and Republican moderates who, though they offer occasional lip service to global warming, would prefer to avoid handing the Administration any legislative victory heading into midterm elections this fall. 

The lack of concerted U.S. leadership, of course, produced the disastrous collapse of the Copenhagen summit in December, sidelining years of hard work by the international climate community to achieve binding global emissions limits post-Kyoto. What was a domestic policy dispute has become a foreign policy debacle, as well.  While President Obama deserves at least some credit for his last-ditch efforts to put on a brave face in Copenhagen, in the absence of Congressional action or even a clear path forward on legislation, it was too little too late (and was viewed as such by the rest of the world).

Finally, in a near-perfect literary twist, record snowfalls shut down the Capitol and much of the Eastern seaboard last month -- the headlines practically wrote themselves.  One tea party sign read: every time it snows, Al Gore loses. In climate circles, it is truly the winter of our discontent. 

A Failure of Framing, Not Substance

In tactics, as in outcome, the analogy to the health care debate holds up alarmingly well.  By failing to frame the climate debate in effective populist language, Democrats have failed to capitalize on broad public support for clean energy policies. The term "Cap and Trade" (though succinct) remains mysterious and seems to require constant re-explanation every time it is introduced in the media. The opposition (heavily supported by the fossil-energy lobby) has been all too happy to jump into the vacuum, labeling it "Cap and Tax" -- frustratingly, framing a cost-minimizing solution that is the antithesis of big-government command and control as an overly complex, heavy-handed government power grab. With Sarah Palin now working at Fox, can rumors of solar "death panels" be far behind? (Note to my good friends at Armageddon Energy: I love the name, but please don't tell Sarah... she might take it literally).

Of course, just as in health care, the goal of the opposition is not to meet cap and trade on the level playing field of ideas -- and it is a mistake for cap and trade's supporters to approach this as a rational debate on the substance. Sadly (and I say this with respect for intelligent conservatives everywhere), the Republican leadership's answer to an inconvenient truth has been a politically expedient falsehood -- the myth that cap and trade will "destroy the American economy" and set back the economic recovery; that we cannot afford to take action now, during the worst recession of our lifetimes (when, in fact, now is precisely when we need to begin the transformation of our energy economy to create new jobs and new growth industries).

A Modest Proposal

The time has come for supporters of clean energy legislation to retool and reframe this stale partisan debate.  Let me be clear: I do not personally advocate ditching cap and trade, the policy, and certainly would urge the Democratic leadership not to give anything away cheaply (Note to Dems from Negotiation 101 -- do not compromise away your best currency without getting something valuable in return, like, say, a Republican vote or two).  I am merely talking here about ditching cap and trade, the brand.

Instead, we need a name that is so mom-and-apple-pie, so all-American, that it becomes instantly unassailable from anywhere left of Inhofe on the political spectrum. To borrow a line from the junior Senator from Massachusetts, we need a slogan as clear and concise as: "My name is ___.  I drive a truck."  (My name is Elon.  I drive a really cool-looking $100,000 high-performance electric sports car?).

Unfortunately, I don't have the answer. But I know someone out there does. 

Collectively, the Greentech Media readership represents the heart of the cleantech economy and (IMHO) some very smart and savvy minds, too.  In true Silicon Valley fashion, I propose that we "crowd-source" this one.  Email us your nominations for best new framing language for cap and trade (or, generically, meaningful climate and energy legislation) to this address: climatenames@greentechmedia.com by 5 pm Pacific Time this Friday, March 12, 2010. With the help of my friends here at Greentech Media, we will select the best submissions and announce the five finalists on GTM.  I will also forward the results to Congressman Inslee's Chief of Staff and we'll see if we can't inject some new language into the national debate.

Please put your thinking caps on, everyone. It is time the cleantech community punched its weight in this fight -- not with money or votes, but with the true currency of Silicon Valley: ideas!