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Bob Dickson: Cleaning your conscience

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: August 6, 2009 4:55 p.m.
Updated: August 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The 21st-century medicine show that has replaced the 20th century environmental movement would like you to buy carbon offsets.

If you are environmentally conscious, you may choose to accept the offer. Plenty of people have.

According to a Jan. 9 article from The New York Times, corporations and shoppers in the United States spent more than $54 million on carbon offsets last year.

This begs the question: What exactly did those $54 million purchase?

The concept behind carbon offsets is simple. By contributing a carefully formulated ratio of money to any number of environmental organizations - which in turn funnel a portion of said funds into causes such as tree planting and wind farm development - you can offset ("make up for") the carbon footprint (pollution?) you are leaving on the earth.

Here's a quote from a carbon-offset site I Googled recently: "Your contribution will be used to fund clean renewable alternative energy projects which will force clean electricity onto the grid and displace fossil fuel generated electricity."


You can drive a Hummer, jet set across Europe, or heat your pool all winter and still feel good about your contribution to global health. We're talking about guilt-free consumption.

The rub in all this is that carbon offsets don't actually offset anything. They don't clean the environment. They clean your conscience.

The best parallel I can draw involves a panhandler I used to see every morning on the opulent corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills. To the drivers by in their six-figure cars, he was a living offset.

They could wave a 20-spot out the window and feel good about themselves all day.

Did their contributions do anything to ease poverty or homelessness in Los Angeles? Not really. That guy on the corner probably put more cash in his pockets in a morning than I did all day. But helping him was never the motive. By giving, the givers got something valuable in return - they got to feel good about themselves.

Today, the carbon-offset business is booming for the same reason. I just Googled "buy carbon offsets" and turned up almost 1,980,000 hits. You can find organizations promising offsets that are "verifiable" and "affordable." You can choose from numerous offset packages - the perfect prophylactic to fit your carbon footprint.

If you're planning a fall wedding, there's even an organization that sells a carbon footprint-free wedding. Just tell them how many guests are coming, how much traveling they will do, and what kind of gas mileage they expect to get, and you can exchange nuptials in exquisite carbon-neutrality.

All of this smacks of hypocrisy. People don't want to change their lifestyles, but they want to land on the fashionable side of the environmental issue. They want to be practice green living, but only if they can do it in a fully air-conditioned home. They want to curb global warming (AKA "climate change"), but only if they can keep their Jacuzzis heated in the process.

I may be one of the skeptics when it comes to the climate change mania, but I'm all for environmental stewardship. I can see the wisdom in proposals for alternative energy and conservation.

Maybe that's why this whole carbon offset business is so offensive. It allows people to play at being green without actually changing their spots. It gives them an "I paid at the office" opt-out when it comes to environmental responsibility.

The only green I see in that is the money flowing into the environmental medicine show.

Bob Dickson, a 12-year Santa Clarita resident, is an award-winning journalist and former sports writer for The Signal. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Right Here, Right Now" appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers.


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