Monday, October 23, 2023

Carbon Indulgences: The South Pole Scandal


Repentance is hard.  Obtaining true forgiveness is even harder.  So it is no surprise that over the ages, people have tried to find shortcuts around the difficult chores of changing one's ways and being forgiven for going astray.  This week's New Yorker carries the story of one such effort:  the activities of the world's largest carbon-offsetting firm, South Pole, turn out to have been something of a shell game.


Carbon offsetting is based on the notion, accepted as gospel in many circles, that by using fossil fuels, humans are committing slow mass suicide that can be averted only by striving toward "net zero"—that is, not adding any more CO2 to the atmosphere than we take out.  A logical consequence of this notion is that doing anything that produces CO2 is the secular equivalent of a sin in Christian theology.  Unfortunately, this type of sinning is extremely hard to avoid, because ordinary things like turning on the lights, driving a car, flying, or running a business—especially a manufacturing business—necessitate committing manifold sins of this kind. 


As in the days of old when people sought out Catholic priests to get their sins absolved, people and corporations today want to get the same feeling of being washed clean of their carbon misdeeds, but without facing the hard tasks of doing without fossil fuels altogether.


Enter South Pole, and smaller outfits like them.  South Pole sells "carbon offsets."  The basic idea is simple:  if you want to make up for your carbon sins, conveniently measured in millions of tons of CO2, you simply pay South Pole the going rate, which has varied widely over the years like any other commodity.  And voila!—South Pole promises to preserve a Zimbabwean forest that would otherwise be cut down, and those precious trees will absorb not only your carbon sins, but those of all the other companies paying millions for carbon offsets.


Deforestation is another secular sin we've heard a lot about, so it makes a certain amount of sense to pay villagers not to cut down trees.  That's fine as long as the villagers really do refrain from destroying the forest, and also if it was certain that they would have cut it down otherwise.  You can already see a potential problem here, involving long-term hypotheticals.  How sure are we that the forest in question would have been destroyed if the offset money wasn't paid?  And how sure can we be that most of the money is really getting to the villagers whose behavior has to change?


Not so sure, it turns out.  Heidi Blake's article describes in great detail the dubious accounting of one Steve Wentzel, who was South Pole's man in Zimbabwe charged with actually implementing the forest preservation.  According to Blake, Wentzel promised a great deal more than he delivered.  While he still claims to have prevented the requisite amount of deforestation, he has no paper trail to prove it, and says that the erratic Zimbabwean economy and currency forced him to do what amounted to money-laundering in order to get U. S. currency with which to pay the villagers. 


Blake describes how one employee after another of South Pole left the organization once they realized that the firm was taking money mainly to make its customers feel better, not because they were doing anything objectively to improve the world's climate crisis.    In addition, the price of carbon offsets has gyrated wildly in recent years, affected by such things as the failure of the Kyoto Protocol agreement to commit most major carbon-emitting countries to substantial reductions. 


This situation reminds me of an episode in the Protestant Reformation that involved what are called indulgences.  In order to be fair to the Catholic side, I'm going to quote directly from the Catholic Encyclopedia (published around 1914) as to what an indulgence is:  "An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive."  Preceding that is a definition of what an indulgence is not, which includes the following:  "It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; . . . [i]t is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin . . . . "


The basic idea, as this Protestant understands it, is this.  Only God through Jesus Christ's atonement really forgives sins.  But even if a sin is forgiven, there remains "temporal punishment," meaning that souls who have died without being fully cleansed of their venial sins have to undergo some suffering in Purgatory before going to Heaven.  And, according to Catholic doctrine, prayers and good works by the living on behalf of those suffering in Purgatory can help them get out sooner than otherwise.


In the 16th century, someone (it isn't clear who) came up with the following jingle in Germany:  "Sobald der Pfenning im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt."  In English:  "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs."  In other words, if you give me money, I can guarantee your Aunt Bertha will get out of Purgatory.  It was associated with one Johann Tetzel, who apparently preached in the spirit of such a saying without using the actual words. 


The misuse of indulgences was one of the inspirations for the Protestant Reformation, and although the Church still offers indulgences, it no longer puts a price on them. 


South Pole appears to be a modern-day secular equivalent of Johann Tetzel, promising more than it can possibly deliver.  But in a free market, the price of forgiveness can soar, and those who trade in it can profit mightily.  What they do with the money is another question.  The carbon-offset concept seems so inherently open to abuse that I, for one, think it should be abandoned for more practical short-term efforts to deal with the consequences of climate change.  But there will always be those seeking secular forgiveness, and those willing to sell it for a good price.


Sources:  Heidi Blake's article "Hot Air" appears on pp. 42-55 of the Oct. 23, 2023 issue of The New Yorker.  I found the German version of Tetzel's non-quote at James Swan's blog, and referred to the online Catholic Encyclopedia definition of indulgence at

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