Can We Atone for Our Energy Sins?

     Typically, green represents the deadly sin of envy, but with the media’s help it now also stands for hypocrisy.

     In this case, the hypocrisy is media promotion of buying carbon offsets – giving a donation to an energy-saving project as penance for guzzling gas or jetting off to an exotic location. With Al Gore, Hollywood and other celebrities leading the way, the media have joined the excitement, encouraging individuals and companies to offset carbon dioxide emissions.

     “If more people do it over time, it’s a good thing,” said reporter Russ Mitchell during the “Early Show” on CBS February 22.

     Mitchell even undermined criticism of offsets during that same broadcast: “There are critics of carbon offsetting who say it allows people to feel less guilty about the way their lifestyle affects the environment. Most people who know about it, though, see it as – as a step in the right direction.”

     Gore and others call it becoming “carbon neutral” and it is all the rage these days – just look who’s doing it: the Oscars, Dave Matthews, George Clooney. In fact, “carbon neutral” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2006.

     To be carbon neutral, it’s as easy as buying a “carbon offset” or so proponents say. Then you can help save the planet from global warming and still fly to Cancun for that vacation. Online booking sites like Travelocity and Expedia even partner with companies that sell carbon offsets to consumers.

     The companies then use the money for “carbon-reducing projects, such as renewable energy like wind and solar,” said’s Eric Carlson. He was interviewed on CBS “Early Show” February 22.

     The media have supported not only individuals’ offsetting, but companies’ as well. NBC “Nightly News” praised shoe company Timberland on the February 3 broadcast for “not waiting for the government to take action” to stop global warming by reducing and offsetting emissions.

     “20 tons of carbon each year for each American. All of that carbon adds to a layer of greenhouse gases that is warming the planet,” said NBC’s Tom Costello. “And it may take each one of us acting locally, to truly make a global difference.”

     The “Wall Street mantra of ‘greed is good’ has been replaced by ‘green is good’,” CBS “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric declared on February 26.

     But carbon offsetting might as well be a joke to economists and environmentalists. “Subsidizing ‘good’ energy in order to justify ‘bad’ energy is like eating salad in order to justify eating dessert. It is an exercise in self-deception,” wrote economist and author Arnold Kling on March 6.

Jolly Green Hypocrite

     Just a day after Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Academy Award at the “green” Oscars, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research cried foul over the former vice president’s green sermons.

     “In 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kWh—more than 20 times the national average,” the free-market think tank reported, pointing out the hypocrisy of Gore’s conservation message.

     An article in The Tennessean defended Gore from the charges, claiming “green power” is used in the Tennessee mansion, and quoted spokeswoman Kalee Krider who said, “They, of course, also do the carbon emissions offset.”

     But it turns out Gore purchases offsets through Generation Investment Management, a company he founded and chairs.

     While Gore argues that his offsets and energy choices allow him to continue gallivanting around the world to spread the message of conservation, a BBC News article from February 20 said emissions offsets may actually be harmful.

     BBC quoted Jutta Kill of the Forests and the European Union Resource Network (FERN), who said carbon offsetting does not reduce emissions and the public is being seriously misled.

     Kill and several other environmentalists explained in the story that offset payments often go to tree planting and other projects, but “they are not actually neutralising their impact on the global environment.” The system is harmful, they said, because people believe action is being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they buy offsets.

     Planting trees to make up for carbon emissions was also criticized by columnist Lorrie Goldstein of the Toronto Sun. “[T]o absorb most of the carbon dioxide caused by one passenger taking one domestic round-trip flight across Canada in 2007, requires planting 15 trees today that won't complete the job until 2047-2057, assuming none is destroyed by fire, disease or insects. If they are, they'll release their carbon back into the atmosphere.”

     In a May 2006 Wired magazine article, in which Gore said he atoned for 1 million miles in global air travel for 2005, he also admitted average Americans are unlikely to practice carbon offsetting, which is “essentially a voluntary taxation system.”

     But what if now-voluntary offsetting becomes mandatory?

Cap’n Who?

    Carbon offsets are a choice for individuals and business who want to spend the money, but a legislative proposal called “cap-and-trade” would forcibly limit emissions by industry or the entire economy and act as a tax, according to some experts.

     Al Gore has called global emissions trading, also called cap-and-trade, a “responsible approach to solving the climate crisis,” according to Newsweek.

     Cap-and-trade is a two-part system. The “cap” is a government-imposed limitation on carbon emissions, either for industry or the entire economy. The “trade” is a government-created market to buy and sell pollution or greenhouse gas credits. Companies that remain under the limit can then sell credits so someone else can emit more gases than the cap allows. Essentially, high-emissions companies try to “offset” their own emissions by paying the lower-emitting companies.

     A regional cap-and-trade system is in the works for the Western United States now that the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington signed an agreement in late February.

     The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post covered that story favorably on February 27 without including any critics. The Times even called it a “plan to curb global warming” and labeled it a “market-based” approach. Between the two stories, 10 individuals or groups were cited that support this cap-and-trade agreement.

     But according to an editorial in the March 3-4 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, it is not a market approach: “There’s no market here unless the government creates one.”

     Kling, an economist and author who frequently writes for, called cap-and-trade “an entitlement policy, in which corporations would be given licenses to pollute, which they would then trade in a market.”

     He then declared such entitlements a “tax and subsidy scheme” because companies that go over the government limit will essentially be taxed by having to purchase credits from another company.

     The Wall Street Journal editorial called the companies lobbying for them “rent-seekers” in the March 3-4 weekend edition of the paper.

     In her January 26 Journal column, Kimberley A. Strassel explained why 10 major companies, which banded together in the Climate Action Partnership, have called for a national limit on carbon dioxide emissions. Several are utility companies with investments in wind, hydroelectric and nuclear power, while others have invested in biofuels, but the bottom line is that each stands to make a profit and “simultaneously sock it to their competitors,” Strassel wrote.

     Duke Energy CEO James Rogers explained it earlier this year: “If you’re not at the table when these negotiations are going on, you’re going to be on the menu.”


Winners and Losers

     Cap-and-trade systems are promoted with the idea that the planet wins because emissions will be reduced and global warming will be mitigated, but that may not be the case.

     Echoing Couric’s remark that “green is good,” Newsweek reported on corporate “climate change.” “[A]ny deal that reeks of greenhouse gases” sets off alarms at Goldman Sachs, who is “leading the greening of Wall Street,” according to the March 12 issue.

     One legislator who has proposed cap-and-trade legislation is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). When CNN’s Miles O’Brien asked McCain about his support for a cap-and-trade system, McCain called it “a free market-based proposal that’s working in Europe [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions],” during the January 24 “American Morning.”

     O’Brien did not disagree or mention any criticism of cap-and-trade during the interview – nor did he counter McCain’s claim about how well cap-and-trade is working in Europe.

     “In truth, Europe's CO2 emissions are rising twice as fast as those of the U.S. since Kyoto, three times as fast since 2000,” wrote Christopher C. Horner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in the February 2 Washington Times.

     Horner, the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism,” also wrote in his book that the only countries in Europe that have significantly reduced emissions, with one exception, “did it the old-fashioned way: economic collapse.”


     “Current emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of making cuts onto factories in the developing world,” reported Newsweek International on March 12.

     Decreasing emissions is no guarantee. But under cap-and-trade, rent-seeking companies work with the government to construct the market and invest in projects that will emit less carbon dioxide. They stand to profit while ordinary citizens and the poor lose as higher costs are passed on to them.

     “Cap-and-trade proposals would be the largest single tax increase in the history of America,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said on February 14. “While certain large companies may benefit from these schemes, the American people would be greatly harmed, particularly the middle class, the working poor and low-income families.”

     Horner agreed. “Carbon dioxide taxes and rationing schemes are regressive: they disproportionately affect poor people and seniors,” he wrote in his book.

     In fact, this green plan may take quite a bit of green from your wallet.

     “The environmentalist group Resources for the Future counted that cap-and-trade is actually about four times as expensive to the economy as an energy tax designed to achieve the same outcome,” wrote Horner.

     In his book, Horner includes figures for the cumulative loss of gross domestic product by 2025 from three separate cap-and-trade policies that have been introduced in the Senate. The losses range from $331 billion to $1.4 trillion.