An Offsetting Truth?

March 15th, 2007 by Doug Schnitzspahn

I understand the worry over carbon offsets. There is a real danger that those who buy offsets will forget about the root problems that are causing global warming. It’s a legitimate concern. If you can simply offset the carbon your car emits, why bother to adjust the tire pressure for better mileage? If you can create “carbon neutral” products, why bother to get a blower door test to make your company headquarters more energy efficient?

But I think the anti-offseters are throttling a straw man. No one is saying that you can go ahead and pollute, that you can ignore the deeper causes of global warming, if you purchase offsets. Offsetting is just one part of the multi-faceted process of reducing your personal or corporate carbon footprint. It is an important one, but it must be done in conjunction with a whole range of other steps that reduce waste and consumption. Still, even if all you do is buy carbon offsets you are at least making some small difference. And it is extremely important for people to feel as if they can make a difference, even if it is by doing something very small.

According to the World Land Trust as reported in Environmental News Network (a site with excellent journalistic standards by the way), “Properly run offset projects can directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, permanently store it and prevent it from having any further global warming effects. There are many carbon offsetting organizations with good reputations and, whilst some are run by people more interested in money than the environment, to taint all of them with the same brush will stifle one of the few opportunities available to tackle climate change.”

Groups (and writers) protesting carbon offsetting have been comparing carbon offsetting to the Catholic Church’s granting of indulgences to pay for sins during the Renaissance and Reformation. A paper called The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Carbon Neutral Sins published by Netherlands-based Carbon Trade Watch seems to have introduced the idea. Read the paper. It has compelling arguments about how carbon offsetting is used as a smokescreen by large corporations. But when applied to the basic idea of individuals and small companies offsetting the carbon they use it is a bogus, disingenuous analogy. (A much better analogy would be comparing carbon offsetting without other green steps to the case of a patient with heart trouble taking his medicine but continuing to eat fatty foods, smoke, and refusing to exercise.)

Never mind how comparing carbon offsetting to indulgences ignores the complexities of Catholic theology (remember Carbon Trade Watch is based in the Netherlands, the Protestant flashpoint of the Reformation), when you look at the analogy it just doesn’t make much sense. That’s because it is meant to deceive, to subvert the dialog. Sins are intangible. Offsetting? When you buy carbon offsets you actually reduce the amount of carbon being pumped into the earth’s atmosphere. Yes, it may not affect you directly, may not make a difference in the smoggy sky above your head in LA, but it still represents a net reduction in the amount of carbon being used. It also encourages investment in wind (or other alternative power). And on an extremely basic level, the more demand for wind power the less demand for fossil fuels.

Equally obtuse is the idea that those individuals who buy carbon offsets do it out of guilt. Offsetting is done by choice. (A legitimate concern would be companies that simply offset as a marketing ploy without making any effort to reduce carbon emissions or consumption.) I would even posit that it is the offset protestors who are making those who buy offsets feel guilty for making an effort to affect climate change but not buying completely into the offset-protestor’s world-view.

Simply put, the indulgences analogy is a smear campaign. It is just the kind of political sloganism that George Orwell warns against in ”Politics and the English Language”. It is not meant to encourage debate or even to battle global warming. It is meant to demonize those selling offset credits. I first read the indulgences analogy in a piece about carbon offset protesters in Treehugger (the protestors were targeting the Carbon Neutral Company in London and concerned about the role of offsetting in international treaties as well as the trading of carbon offset futures). A few days later Treehugger blogger Mark Ontkush picked up the phrase instead of attributing it to The Carbon Neutral Myth—or thinking for himself—in a post on computer companies offsetting the carbon used to produce chips (at least I think that is what he was trying to write about). Treehugger is an extremely well linked and popular site, considered the authority on green/environmental issues (although I’m not exactly sure why since it seems more concerned about churning out posts that boost its Technorati ratings than it is with Mother Jones-style journalism), so suddenly everyone with a blog is posting the news that carbon offsetting “is similar to the indulgences of the 15th and 16th centuries, where the Dutch literally paid for their sins.” This, to me is not just wrong it is irresponsible journalism. Mr. Ontkush should have attributed his quote to Carbon Neutral from the get go instead of vapidly assimilating it into his own language. Look, I’m sure Ontkush is a thoughtful writer who is legitimately concerned about these issues and the planet, but he did a disservice to the green/sustainable movement because he, as Orwell would say, used a prepackaged political analogy that stops writers from thinking.

I would ask Ontkush and others who enter the offset debate to listen to Orwell’s advice:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”

And truly it is that debasement of the dialog that worries me far more than the actual argument over carbon offsets (which is after all an important and many-faceted debate). The proliferation of the indulgences analogy is just the type of lazy writing and lazy thought that Orwell found so dangerous. (Interestingly enough both rightists and leftist lay claim to Orwell’s legacy. And both are justified. Orwell was more concerned with truth than holding the party line, and real thinkers of any political persuasion should be worried about losing their individual ability to think.)

I think there is a deeper debate here that may be the root of all the impassioned anti-offset rhetoric, and it too deserves careful though instead of instant abhorrence. Many “greenies” don’t like the idea that people are making money off fighting global warming (Ontkush bashes Terrapass a green-thinking company that sells carbon offsets). Now, this is a matter of personal political preference, but I am of the mind that a capitalistic society offers more freedom than a state-run society. I’m also of the mind that the best way for anti-global warming initiatives to work is if they are profitable. Human nature. We like money. Nothing wrong with that. The evil is in what you do with the power you achieve with that money. But instead of being resistant to the idea that individuals and corporations can profit from green initiatives, I’m encouraged by it. The more people who save money or even make money by saving the planet, the better chance we have of actually doing something about global warming. I personally don’t like the state-controlled alternatives to capitalism and I suggest reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind if you have delusions of left-wing (or right-wing) utopias.

In the end, all I really ask is that, if we are going to engage in a debate on carbon offsets, both sides come to the table with realistic answers to the problem. I hope that the carbon offset and global warming debate can be based on how we can realistically make things better instead of being dragged into gut-reactions that dilute the movement and in the end derail a truly noble cause.

4 Responses to “An Offsetting Truth?”

  1. An Offsetting Truth? wrote on 03/15/07 at 6:08 pm :

    […] Original post by Carbon Credits News by Carbon Credit News Posted by | […]

  2. Lin wrote on 03/15/07 at 7:10 pm :

    doug is right. the indulgence argument is vapid. we must do the right thing as a species. our survival depends on shifting our energy production from carbon to renewables. simple as that. how we get there…we’ll find the best way. but get there we must or we’re hot on the heels of dinosaurs on the way to extinction.

  3. Mark Ontkush wrote on 03/19/07 at 9:51 pm :

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for the post, Mark from Treehugger here. Obviously I have a much different view of offsets and their purpose. You can covered some good points here, consider these as well.

    Offsets are sold usually by juxtapositioning them with another product. My sense is vendors do this to evoke a feeling. I think that feeling is ‘guilt’, although it could be something more rosy, such as ‘hope’. This is not unlike the sale of other products, such as diamonds or bottled water, which couple love and health respectively to a product that has nothing to do with it.

    The reason for doing this is because, much like indulgences, there is no reason to buy offsets. None. No one is under any obligation to purchase them and a fake market must be created. Again, bottled water, diamonds. The way to make a market is to link them with feelings.

    You mention that I want to stop writers from thinking. That is absolutely, 100 percent correct. I do not want people to think or discuss the situation anymore; probably much like you, I want them to act. I include myself in the equation – I have stopped thinking about global warming, and spending all my time doing things to fix it. My post was strongly worded to prevent readers from wasting their limited time, resources, and patience on a foolish scheme.


  4. Mary wrote on 03/21/07 at 3:38 pm :

    Just some random surfing on the topic, and look who I found!! Great essay, thanks – and best wishes.

    Mary Brown