The dirty truth about carbon offsets

The “do as I say but not as I do” philosophy of the liberal elite is on the rise.

Consider President George W. Bush’s 2005 proposal to fix Social Security by allowing workers a right to invest their own payroll tax dollars into personally owned, diversified stocks and bonds. These efforts were met with howls of indignation by wealthy liberals. The market, they argued, was too risky, and workers not quite bright enough to manage their own money. Never mind the aggressive stock strategies and fat returns on investments the elites themselves reap.

Likewise, when it comes to taxes, they have no problem advocating tax hikes for “the rich” while employing legions of accountants to identify loopholes, helping them to successfully evade paying “their fair share.”

Nowhere is the hypocrisy of the left more telling than on global warming policy. It turns out that it is quite difficult to balance the carbon-spewing Hollywood lifestyle of limousines, private jets and energy-sucking mansions with their professed “moral” agenda of cutting human carbon emissions. You need look no further than to the high-flying lifestyle of Laurie David, the producer of the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” to illustrate the problem. She has traveled the nation with rock star Sheryl Crow, lecturing America’s youth on extravagant energy consumption. Her website tells us to carpool to work and cut our grass with old-fashioned push mowers, but David herself uses private Gulfstream jets to commute between her homes in Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard.

What to do? Greyhound is simply not an option, but carbon austerity is so fashionable at cocktail parties. Luckily, there is now a way for the liberal elite to make peace with their own hypocrisy. Enter the carbon offset.

The carbon offset business is taking off with well-heeled liberals and is expected to be a multibillion-dollar industry within just the next few years. The way it works is simple: You believe Al Gore (or, as Leo christened him at the Oscars, “The Goracle”) when he predicts a global crisis of biblical proportions if we fail to drastically cut human carbon emissions. You feel bad about this, but not bad enough to give up your Mercedes in favor of a hybrid or to stop flying back and forth to Paris for your regular shopping trips.

But rather than feel guilty or crimp your lifestyle, just buy a carbon offset! No need to change your lifestyle when you can pay someone else to do it for you.

Offset companies, such as the American firm Blue Source, claim that this environmental penance money goes to “green” projects like oil recovery or chemical pollution cleanup activities. However, as the Financial Times discovered in a recent investigation, payments are sometimes made for reductions in carbon emissions that simply do not take place, while some companies are getting rich promoting cleanup projects that would have happened anyway.

But the fact that these firms aren’t really doing anything should not be all that surprising. It may annoy their patrons a bit to have it pointed out, but ultimately, consumers of carbon offsets aren’t investing in results. It’s all about buying the public perception of virtue. Just imagine this business model applied to the other problems that plague the Beautiful People: Could you hire someone not to cheat on your wife for you? Maybe, for a fee, someone finally would go on that diet your doctor recommended.

This is not a new business model. Today’s market for carbon offsets borrows directly from the Catholic Church’s medieval practice of selling indulgences to wealthy sinners looking to be virtuous without the burden of actually being virtuous. Five hundred years ago, wealthy nobles could pay the local parish and literally receive a receipt absolving them of previous sins. Today, when well-to-do liberals want to improve their self-esteem (or at least their public image), they purchase a carbon offset.

Sadly, there is really only one way to actually reduce your production of carbon: to reduce your energy consumption.

The truth can be so inconvenient.

Matt Kibbe is president of FreedomWorks, a group that advocates for small government.