Offsets are trendy. Just as Climate Progress is running columns on carbon offsets, Tom Friedman has a column on the subject, “Live Bad, Go Green.” Since his is only for N. Y. Times subscribers, I’ll reprint the key parts of it here. His bottom line: He buys offsets, but is ambivalent about them.
He opens by citing a London furniture designer who
heaped particular scorn on programs that enable people to offset their excessive carbon emissions by funding green projects elsewhere. “Who really checks that it’s being done?” he asked. And how much difference does it really make?
Here’s the heart of the piece:
I raise this issue of carbon offsets because they’re symptomatic of the larger problem we face in confronting climate change: everyone wants it to happen, but without pain or sacrifice. On balance, I think carbon-offsetting is a good thing — my family has purchased offsets — if for no other reason than it directs resources toward clean technologies that might not have been funded and, therefore, moves us down the innovation curve faster.But the danger, argues Michael Sandel, Harvard’s noted political philosopher, “is that carbon offsets will become, at least for some, a painless mechanism to buy our way out of the more fundamental changes in habits, attitudes and way of life that are actually required to address the climate problem.”
“If someone drives a Hummer and buys carbon offsets to salve his conscience, that is better than driving the Hummer and doing nothing,” added Mr. Sandel, author of “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.” “But it would be even better to trade in the Hummer for a hybrid. The risk is that carbon offsets will make Hummers seem respectable rather than irresponsible, and distract us, as a nation, from harder, bigger changes in our energy policy.”
People often refer to the current climate buzz as “a green revolution,” but the very term revolution suggests a fundamental break with past habits, attitudes and public policies. Yet, when you suggest a carbon tax or a higher gasoline tax — initiatives that would redirect resources and change habits at the scale actually needed to impact global warming — what is the first thing you hear in Congress? “Impossible — you can’t use the T-word.”
A revolution without sacrifice where everyone is a winner? There’s no such thing.
Katherine Ellison wrote a wonderful piece on this topic for Salon.com in which she quoted Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climatologist, as saying: “Volunteerism doesn’t work. It’s about as effective as voluntary speed limits. No cops, no judges: road carnage. No rules, no fines: greenhouse gases. We’re going to triple or quadruple the CO2 in the atmosphere with no policy. I don’t believe offsets are just a distraction. But we’ll have failed if that’s all we do.”
There’s a saying at the Pentagon that “a vision without resources is a hallucination.” For my money, the green revolution today is still a hallucination.