Marshmallows and musical chairs help teach Cap'n Trade 101

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Well, this week has been a historic one on the climate change front. The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was going to place more stringent regulations on the nation's largest carbon emitters -- which represent only 2 percent of U.S. businesses, but 70 percent of greenhouses gases -- and Senate Democrats released a draft bill that included even more zealous carbon cuts than one passed by the House earlier this year. (More in Emily Gertz's roundup.)

While most agree that curtailing greenhouse gas emissions and working to slow global warming is a hunky dory idea, especially when you've got walrus pups being trampled alive in Alaska as a result of disappearing sea ice, many still disagree over the means to that end.

[caption id="attachment_4696" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Alan Durning. Photo courtesy of Sightline.org"]Alan Durning. Photo courtesy of Sightline.org[/caption]

One of the ways politicians have proposed combating emissions is through a carbon cap and trade system. While the idea has been kicked around in Congress for a few years now, the concept is still widely debated and -- not surprisingly --  still perplexing to many. So to get a firm grasp on the inner workings, KPLU's Liam Moriarty sat down for a one-on-one with Alan Durning, the brain behind the Seattle-based research and advocacy group,  Sightlight Institute. As head of an organization that closely follows this kind of stuff, Durning was a good choice for simplifying a rather complicated topic. In fact, InvestigateWest has picked his brain a little ourselves. But I still had a good laugh when I read that Durning's best symbol for the cap and trade system was of all things -- marshmallows. Juxtaposing the sticky white sweet to greenhouse gas emissions, Durning says:

We’re consuming too many marshmallows and we’re all getting overweight, so we’re gonna start cutting down on the quantity of marshmallows... So we say, OK, this year we’re gonna have 100 marshmallows a week and next year it’s gonna go down to 98 and we’re gonna gradually reduce. And then we’ll give people marshmallow coupons. And you turn in a coupon whenever you eat a marshmallow... And if you don’t need your marshmallow coupons, you can sell ‘em.

It's an interesting concept, but he's not the first to use imagery to break down carbon trading. Awhile back, Seattle-based grist.org adapted yet another metaphor: musical chairs. The result was an interactive, user-friendly -- albeit rather simple --  slideshow. It's worth checking out.

Durning goes on to explain that the cap and trade system is a market set up to help wean businesses (and thus, consumers) away from dirty energy and onto clean fuel sources. But he points out that most people could care less about where their energy comes from, just as long as they're getting it:

People want the consequences of using energy. Right? They want hot showers and cold beer. But they don’t care about the barrel of oil... And if they can get the energy from sunlight or the blowing winds or water running down hill, that’s fine, they don’t care.

California is one of the forerunners in the budding U.S. carbon commodity business, having adopted the first comprehensive plan that includes a cap and trade program to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The L.A. Times reported that the program has spawned some really interesting carbon-reduction techniques, including allowing companies to offset their emissions by purchasing carbon bonuses from forest-saving projects, which can store copious amounts of carbon.

This idea is catching on internationally. At this week's second annual Governor's Global Climate Summit in California, hosted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, global officials rallied around cap and trade programs containing forest preservation, writes the Times' Margot Roosevelt.

Some hope such regulation  could provide a way to channel money to the historically exploited tropical forests of the world, which are globally significant for their carbon-absorbing abilities. In fact, scientists say that nearly one quarter of all carbon emissions are directly related to tropical deforestation. That's more than every country's transportation sector -- combined.

But not everybody is digging the carbon-capping concept. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has fiercely opposed cap and trade bills, and they're losing board members as a result of it: Matthew Preusch of the Oregonian reported that this week Nike and Exelon  joined California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM  in stepping down from their board positions in light of the committee's stance on climate-change legislation. Though they remain a member, General Electric has also criticized the Chamber, who once said that global warming may actually be good for us.

-- Natasha Walker