Carbon Credits: Cheap Grace?

The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings post for today is a brilliant piece by Elizabeth Musselman on carbon offsets as the new “indulgences”–a mode of cheap grace that assuages guilt without requiring any change of lifestyle (sort of like the Bush plan to find new drugs for the American addiction to oil, rather than curtail the addiction). The piece is not yet archived on the website, so I’ll paste it here:

Carbon Offsets: The New Indulgence? — Elizabeth Musselman

“Feeling guilty about all those greenhouse gases you generate?” Morning Edition host John Ydstie asked listeners of Martin Kaste’s recent National Public Radio story on the thriving carbon offset businesses in the United States. “There may be a way to get out of that eco-guilt, if you’re willing to pay.” Here’s how it works: With the computational help of a website sponsored by the nonprofit organization The Climate Trust, American energy consumers can now compute exactly how much carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere every year and then invest proportionally into a company that provides programs to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the world. The calculating mechanism enables the energy consumer to donate just enough money to help the company offset the exact amount of pollution generated by that consumer’s lifestyle — no more, no less. Thus, we can continue to drive our SUVs and turn up the heat in the winter without guilt, because by engaging in this financial transaction that Kaste calls “atmospheric penance” we can be reckoned as “carbon neutral.”

Guardian commentator George Monbiot compares carbon offset programs to sales of indulgences in medieval Europe. Citing the worst abuses of indulgences (such as the sale of pardons for incest and murder), Monbiot identifies three problems with carbon offset programs. They encourage people to continue to emit carbons now in exchange for the possibility of reduced carbon emissions in the future (and any scientist will admit that an ounce of carbon saved next year isn’t as ecologically valuable as an ounce of carbon saved today). Further, they eliminate the sense of guilt that might drive energy consumers toward earth-saving lifestyle and policy changes. Finally, they are simply too little too late. “You can now buy complacency, political apathy, and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet.” Is Monbiot a modern-day Martin Luther figure, heroically railing against the sale of false ecological salvation to save us from the eschatological terror of environmental collapse? Or should we all purchase carbon offsets after reading this article? Perhaps the answer to both questions is “yes.”

Monbiot’s easy identification of carbon offsets with indulgences is too simple. As Luther pointed out, indulgences targeted the poor, often keeping salvation-hungry peasants from feeding their families (see the 46th of Luther’s 95 Theses). Today, those who feel the most immediate effects of our environmental crisis are the poorest citizens of the world. So in our case, the poor are better off if we do everything we can to slow the impending environmental doom — which includes financially supporting carbon offset programs. And remember Luther’s claim (see thesis 82) that if the Pope really had the power to spring souls from purgatory he should automatically save everyone rather than only those who pay? Similarly, if our financial contributions can really reduce global climate change, shouldn’t we automatically contribute everything we can, regardless of how much CO2 we personally emit? But it would still not be enough. Carbon offsets alone won’t save our earth from burning any more than indulgences could have saved souls from burning. It is clear that Luther and Monbiot agree on one thing: The reality of sin (read: greed and complacency) makes any simple human effort toward salvation (read: environmental restoration) a mere drop in the bucket. It would take ten billion dollars a year to return the United States to its 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even if that could be accomplished, we would still need to change radically the way we live and consume in order to prevent the disaster that many scientists say is now inevitable. Should we donate money to help fund the capture of methane gases on Mexican pig farms and the creation of windmills in India? Yes. Should we stop driving so much? Yes. Should we buy locally? Yes. Should we lobby for policy changes? Yes. The list goes on and on.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that it was near the end of a 2,000-mile solo driving trip that I first heard the NPR story about carbon offsets. Feeling guilty, this theologian and future pastor drove the rest of the way home, donated money to a company that reduces carbon emissions, took the train to school the next day instead of driving — and then promptly returned to her normal lifestyle. Apparently, it will take more than a temporary feeling of eco-guilt to change my driving habits. And it will take more than carbon offsets for us to save ourselves from the sins of complacency and consumerism that threaten the future of our planet.

Martin Kaste’s National Public Radio story “‘Carbon Offset’ Business Takes Root” (November 28, 2006) can be listened to online at:
The Climate Trust’s carbon offset website can be found at
George Monbiot’s Guardian article “Selling Indulgences” (October 18, 2006 ) can be accessed at:
Luther’s “95 Theses” can be found in Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 31, ed. Harold Grimm.

Elizabeth Musselman is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.