A Green Concludes: Offsets Are Bunk

Monday, April 25, 2022

Someone from the climate catastrophist/fossil fuel elimination movement recently considered the idea of carbon offsets and found it wanting as a means of lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide.

(Let's set aside the issue of the validity of that goal, which energy advocate Alex Epstein calls into question here, here, here, and elsewhere.)

Here is just one of the problems the author found while trying to understand how offsets are supposed to work so that he could explain them better:

Unchecked, unexamined data and assertions might not even be evidence... (Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko, via Unsplash, license.)
Suppose everyone tried to use a certain approach to eliminating greenhouse emissions. Would it still work? That is, can you imagine a world where we get to net-zero emissions using this approach?

"Preserving an acre of rainforest" fails the test. Suppose all of the world's cement plant operators agreed to offset their emissions this way. Suppose that this succeeds so well that 100% of the world's remaining rainforests are protected forever. We're still nowhere near net zero! We don't need to analyze "additionality" or "leakage" to figure that out. We can just note that cement plants are putting gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and no one is pulling CO2 back out. (Existing forests do absorb some CO2, but we're already relying on that, and it's not enough to balance overall emissions.)
The above paragraph makes the generous assumption that there would even be enough "offsets" to go around, which seems dubious, and which would eventually not be true, anyway.

I reached this conclusion long ago, and know plenty of people who think offsets are poppycock. Let's consider why it took so long for one of the more thoughtful members of that movement to see through them.

The blurb at the start of the article offers a clue: Avoided emissions seem like a (well-intentioned?) shell game.

Indeed, it does, and there's the problem. Our culture's dominant (but wrong and unworkable) moral code, altruism (which underpins the fossil fuel elimination movement), demands sacrifice of its adherents, who mostly pay lip-service to it. The movement is in vogue, and when you hear, The world is on fire! Stop burning fossil fuels! from every direction, it can be cognitively and socially overwhelming just to stop and examine any part of it.

Most who accept climate catastrophism try their best not to think too much about it because of the fear and (especially) guilt that will inevitably ensue. For them, perfunctory rituals like recycling or plugging in a Tesla are enough to relieve their guilt or even make them feel good about "making a difference."

I would suspect that offsets are like this to most such people. They are the Sunday donation at church at the small end of the scale, or at the high end, the prestigious donation that gets a dormitory or a hospital wing named after you. They are papal indulgences, money paid to relieve guilt to someone to whom one cedes moral authority, but of whom one asks few questions. They are not charity in the name of reaching a valued goal, but with the object of escaping guilt or signalling virtue, mostly to oneself.

People who buy such transparent scams do so at least in part because they want to. I can't help but wonder how much flack this guy caught for questioning part of the doctrine that has been making so many people feel guilty/seek solace in ritual/look good to themselves and others for so long. I also wonder if the author is beginning to experience any disillusionment.

That can be a hard, but necessary step to the liberation that is knowing the truth.

The author obviously believes that carbon emissions are a big problem, and reminds me a bit of myself when I was a doubting high schooler getting ready for Catholic university. Faith is the Church's shortcut for dealing with people who can't understand the arguments for religion I told myself -- until I got there and saw that it was all they really had.

My advice, if the author (or any passer-by) would have it is, You're hardly done yet: Keep digging. Satisfy your own mind about everything.

It's your life: If anyone wants you to behave a certain way for any reason, those reasons had better stand up to scrutiny. If they don't, quit listening to them.

-- CAV

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