Topic: Science & Technology

Global Warming Ethics, Part Two of Three: The Offset Illusion

There has always been something ethically unsound about carbon offsets, the favored balm of global warming enthusiasts. On one level, it appears to meet basic standards of fairness, responsibility and accountability: you make a mess, you clean it up. But that's not exactly what carbon offsets are like, is it? In many ways, the logic behind offsets resemble the discredited indulgences that led to the Reformation. In 1517, Pope Leo X offered salvation to sinners who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Martin Luthor declared the process a travesty that showed the corruption of the Catholic Church, and the Church didn't have much of an argument, except to ban the practice shortly thereafter. The use of carbon offsets to render virtuous the pious pollution-hounds like Al Gore and John Travolta continues, however, shameless and unabated.

Nashville Electric Service reported that in one month alone this year, Gore burned through 22,619 kilowatt-hours of electricity, a rate twice the level used by an average U.S. household in an entire year. Gore's spokeswoman didn't dispute the figures, but asserted that Gore was offsetting every bit. Hmmmm. Apparently Gore is rich enough that he doesn't need to watch his pollutants, because he can pay for someone else to reduce their carbon byproducts by a proportional amount. For those of us who are not so rich, however, the need to pay for carbon offsets (dictated either by conscience or legislation) creates a financial incentive to change our life-styles, so while the rich can continue to be energy hogs without any guilt, the family with more moderate means has to sacrifice. Travolta gets two jets, but the Jones down the street need to make do with one used car.

Wouldn't there be less need for the Jones' to make radical changes if all the rich environmentalists lived in smaller houses, had less than four SUVs and didn't fly around so much?

The problem with indulgences was that it reduced sin to a financial transaction. Who is better, a person who drives drunk but gives a contribution to MADD, or someone who doesn't drive drunk at all? Who is more admirable, a man who is a lousy father but who contributes to the Big Brothers of America, or someone who just cares for his own kids? Would we ever allow someone to throw unlimited garbage out of his car windows onto the street as long as he had the resources to pay extra for street cleaning? Isn't the offset just a refinement on the tradition of the robber barons like Carnegie, Astor and Rockefeller, who amassed fortunes by exploiting the poor and then set up foundations to good deeds with the money they couldn't spend?

"Well," Al might say, "that's not the point. The point is that paying for offsets while you are polluting is better than polluting and doing nothing." Yes, and giving to the Little Sisters of the Poor while you are molesting school children every day is better than just plain molesting, but what kind of a system is that? Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that offsets do what they claim to do. Some of the offset projects are shady, misleading, or both, or at very least are more about making money than saving the world. Someone once said that every noble cause begins as a crusade, becomes a business, and turns into a scam, and it appears that the global warming campaign is running through this sequence in record time.

An example: at last year's Academy Awards, every performer and presenter received a glass statue representing the elimination of the amount of greenhouse gas in the amount likely to result from a celebrity lifestyle over the course of a year. Each Oscar favor represented 100,000 pounds of emission reductions drawn from a portfolio of offset projects invested in by a company called TerraPass. These were essentially like "Get Out of Environmental Responsibility Free" cards, but does this make any logical or ethical sense? How can a promotional gift, provided for advertising purposed by for-profit organizations, render an individual who does nothing more than accept it "carbon-neutral," as the Academy fatuously claimed? This is posturing and misrepresentation, phony virtue: the environmental equivalent of breast implants.

But it the deception goes deeper than that. As explained by Ben Elgin of "Business Week," TerraPass Inc. is a two-year-old for-profit company in San Francisco that identifies climate-protection efforts and, for a fee, gives its customers the opportunity to buy carbon offsets by investing in them. One contributor to TerraPass portfolio is a large garbage dump outside of Springdale, Ark., from which TerraPass has purchased thousands of tons of gas reductions. The dump's decomposing trash generates methane, a major environmental culprit in trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere and giving Al Gore something to make movies about. Waste Management Inc., the mega- garbage processor that operates the facility, sucks methane from the depths of the landfill and delivers the gas to a single towering flare, where the methane is released into the atmosphere as less-damaging CO2. But company officials and Arkansas environmental regulators say Waste Management began to burn methane, and continues to do so, for reasons having nothing to do with TerraPass' offsets. In fact, Waste Management was asked to do the methane conversion by state officials who determined that the methane levels were contaminating the water supply. The system was put into place and operational by 2001; the fact that converting methane into CO2 results in carbon offsets for global warming amelioration purposes is just a happy coincidence. Happy especially for Waste Management, which can now collect money to do what it had to do anyway.

Let's summarize, shall we? Celebrities assuage their guilt over their energy use with offsets that they can either easily afford or that are just given to them. These offsets consist of investments in methane-conversion activities that would have occurred anyway. The celebrities don't have to change their conduct. Waste Management doesn't have to change its conduct. The Waste Management now gets paid to do what it was going to do anyway. TerraPass makes money. And they all get to join with Al Gore in telling us that we're dooming the earth unless we do with less or pay for the privilege.

"Business Week" interviewed a number of TerraPass "offset industries," and most of them stated that their various activities would have been undertaken without regard to global warming benefits, not that management doesn't appreciate the extra income. But this means that those "offsets" aren't really offsetting anything. "Offsetting" implies that the money one pays to reduce one's "carbon footprint" actually results in less carbon emissions, but when the money is sent to any of these companies, that is untrue. It is, in other words, a lie…and a profitable one.

At least those phantom offsets that don't offset anything cause no damage, other than misleading the public, of course. Not all of the offsets are so harmless. Another offset enterprise is Climate Care, which claims to have offset a million tons of carbon pollutants since it was launched a decade ago. Climate Care offsets energy-hogging by persuading peasants in third-world countries to use "clean" hand and leg power rather than burning fuel. For example, one program persuades Indian villagers to use leg-powered treadle pumps instead of diesel-powered pumps to extract water. As Dominic Kennedy and Ashling O'Connor wrote in their London Times expose,

"To cancel out the CO2 of a flight to India, it will take one poor villager three years of pumping water by foot. So is carbon offsetting the best way to ease your conscience?"

They continue:

"Climate Care celebrates the fact that it encourages the Indian poor to use their own bodies rather than machines to irrigate the land. Its website declares: 'Sometimes the best source of renewable energy is the human body itself. With some lateral thinking, and some simple materials, energy solutions can often be found which replace fossil fuels with muscle-power.' To show that muscle power is preferable to machine power, the Climate Care website features a cartoon illustration of smiling naked villagers pedaling on a treadle pump next to a small house that has an energy-efficient light bulb and a stove made from 'local materials at minimal cost'. Climate Care points out that even children can use treadle pumps: 'One person - man, woman or even child - can operate the pump by manipulating his/her body weight on two treadles and by holding a bamboo or wooden frame for support.'"

That's right: child labor can be an offset for Western hi-tech pollution. But Climate Care may be doing us all a favor. Its scheme, as ethically offensive as it is, may be an apt and illustrative microcosm of the equally unethical "solution" to the global warming problem, if the most ardent climate change advocates get the policy controls. For to achieve a point of no net growth in carbon pollutants, the developing nations will have to strangle their efforts to advance in order to "offset" the energy developed nations used to be successful. For countries like the U.S., that devoured their own rainforests and burned oil and coal like there was no tomorrow, to tell India, Africa and developing Asian nations they should limit their growth and constrict their quality of life in the name of "offsetting" our environmental carnage is a massive abdication of accountability and responsibility. It is also ethically offensive. As with the celebrities at the Oscars, we can't rely on others to fix the consequences of our own conduct. Buying offsets ultimately is at best passing the buck, and at worst embodies deception and exploitation.

That may be a good strategy to win a Nobel Prize, but it's no way to save the world.

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