Sunday, July 08, 2007

Live Bad, Go Green


Published: July 8, 2007

Over dinner with friends in London the other night, the conversation drifted to global warming and whether anything was really being done to reverse it. One guest, Sameh El-Shahat, a furniture designer, 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?

But then he hit on an ingenious idea: If people really want to generate money to plant trees or finance green power, why not have them offset their real sins, not just their carbon excesses? We started to play with his idea: Imagine if you could offset the whole Ten Commandments.

No, really, think about it. Imagine if there were a Web site — I’d call it — where every time you thought you had violated one of the Ten Commandments, or you wanted to violate one of them but did not want to feel guilty about it, you could buy carbon credits to offset your sins.

The motto of Britain’s Conservative Party today is “Vote Blue, Go Green.” GreenSinai’s motto could be: “Live Bad, Go Green.” That would generate some income.

Here’s how it would work: One day, you’re out in the backyard mowing the lawn and suddenly you covet your neighbor’s wife. Hey, it happens — that’s why “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is one of the Ten Commandments. No problem. You just go to and buy 100 trees in the Amazon or fund a project to capture methane from cow dung in India — and, presto, you’re free and clear.

Obviously there would be a sliding scale. Taking God’s name in vain or erecting an idol might cost you only a few solar water heaters for a Chinese village, whereas bearing false witness or stealing would set you back a pilot sugar ethanol plant in Louisiana.

As for adultery, well, I think that’s where the big money could be made. My guess is that we could achieve a carbon-neutral world by 2020 if we just set up a system for people to offset their adultery by reversing deforestation of tropical rain forests or funding mega wind and solar power systems in China and India.

O.K., O.K., more seriously, 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 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.