Confronting False Climate Solutions: Exposing the Truth About Carbon Offsets

"Me and my Ford are doing something good for the planet"

With a scientific consensus having emerged that human beings are warming up the planet, risking catastrophic damage if we continue with business as usual, much of the conversation around climate change has shifted away from “why is this happening?” to “what are we going to do about it?”  The solutions being discussed range from the local and practical, such as organizing community bicycle repair co-ops to the global and fantastical, like placing giant space mirrors in orbit.  One of the ‘solutions’ that has been eagerly embraced by industry is that of carbon trading and offsetting, where a company (or individual) who doesn’t want to cut their carbon emissions essentially pays someone else to do it for them, thereby salving their consciences and improving their public image.  Many of the largest financial institutions in the world- the same ones who are responsible for ongoing climate damage- are heavily invested in the carbon market, including Goldman-Sachs, Barclays and Citibank.

Real Solutions

The solution to climate change is dead simple.   We need to stop (or at least dramatically reduce) the burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible.   Any “solution” that does not progress toward this goal is a dangerous distraction from the major transition that is required.  By providing psychological justification to continue to dump carbon into the atmosphere, the sale of offsets allows people to live within a narrative that says we can continue our existing lifestyles and still have a safe, stable future.  That’s why auto, oil, and utility companies have seized upon offsetting- because it provides ecological cover for their increasingly damaging business practices.  Just like a cigarette addict cannot imagine a life free of smoking, it is difficult for most of us to imagine a life without fossil fuels.  Because of our collective addiction, we are eager to embrace false solutions (think Marlboro lights, filters, smokeless tobacco, etc.)   The reality is that we need to overcome our chronic dependence on oil, coal, and gas if we are to avoid lasting damage to the future of life on the planet.   The sale of carbon offsets distorts this basic truth, and distracts us from implementing real solutions to the current crisis.

The Future of Carbon Trading

The carbon trading industry (that includes carbon offsets) is already a multibillion dollar industry.  Offset firms like Terrapass have grown rapidly over the past several years, with their bumper stickers proclaiming “I clean up after my car” now a common sight on Bay Area roads. With the possible passage of federal Cap and Trade legislation, carbon trading is likely to become a trillion dollar industry by the end of this decade.  Fortunately the truth about carbon markets is coming out.  A number of critical articles have appeared lately in national publications including Harper’s, the New York Times, Business Week and the Nation exposing carbon trading as a deceptive shell game.  A number of travel companies such as Responsible Travel have rejected offsets, and now believe that they are a “medieval pardon that allows people to continue polluting.”  However, millions of people continue to believe that if they pay $49.95 a year to an offset firm, they can erase the damage to the atmosphere that their driving or flying habits cause.  This is a destructive lie that needs to be exposed.

San Francisco: Ground Zero in the Battle Over Carbon Offsets

In April, there are a number of events happening in San Francisco related to carbon offsets.   This would seem to be a good time to enter into a dialogue about real solutions.  E-mail me at if you’d like to be involved in this dialogue or can support this campaign.

1)    The Green Festival being held April 11th/12th run by Global Exchange and Green America continues to promote the false solution of carbon trading, by “offsetting” their own emissions and allowing offset companies to have booths at the event.  If lefty environmental organizations are promoting offsets, what kind of message does that send?  Why not contact the director of the Festival and ask him?

2)    “Navigating the American Carbon World” will be one of the biggest carbon trading conferences ever.  It will be held in SF April 14th-16th, sponsored by Terrapass, who have amassed millions selling questionable offsets.

3)    Fossil Fools Day, an international day of action on climate change is held every year on April 1st.

There is a long and proud history of direct action in the United States.   Without it, we would still have racial segregation in this country, women would not have the right to vote, and working people would not have weekends.  The climate emergency demands that we confront a system that is killing the planet.  This will mean increasingly doing more than just asking nicely.

But for now, we’ll ask nicely because that’s who we are.  We’re nice.  Especially to Global Exchange who is challenging the business practices of  Chevron.   So here goes….will you guys please stop pretending that the shell game con known as carbon offsetting is doing anything more than making it possible for business to continue as usual?  Pretty please?

One response to “Confronting False Climate Solutions: Exposing the Truth About Carbon Offsets

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