Climate pundits are breathless with anticipation over the expected failure of Congress’ sweeping infrastructure bill to adequately fund decarbonization efforts and the supposed lack of moral high ground the United States will stand on at Glasgow for the upcoming COP26. It will be a chance to point fingers, virtue signal, and engage in a spirited match of kvetching at the dim hope for the future. It’s like the Super Bowl for people who care about people who care about the future.
My generation (GenX) holds a slight advantage in the doomsday forecasting competition - we are convinced of both the direness of the current situation and well-versed in how to caterwaul in Twitter-length soundbites. But as children of the Reagan era, I wonder if there’s a part of this narrative that we’re getting very wrong? We’ve grown up with the expectation that government will disappoint us. We are pretty sure that our political institutions are capable - at best - of only intermittent adequacy. Therefore, it’s no surprise that in this moment of heightened awareness - where all signs point to the panic button - that our leaders are going to punt on the core issues of the day.
There’s a counter-narrative to be had that suggests a better future awaits, but only if we stop waiting around for climate action from our political leaders. Consider the reporting this week that the carbon offset market could be worth $200 billion by 2050. Rosy optimism, to be sure, and part of this number assumes that teeth will eventually be put into emissions caps. But a large part of the future of carbon offsets is strictly voluntary. People want to try to save the planet.
It’s amusing to see how much scoffing echoes around the enlightened-industrial-complex when it comes to carbon offsets (i.e., people like me who purport to know the folly of such things), but the reality is that a lot of people are not content to wait around for the government to act and want to actually do something to decrease the likelihood of catastrophic planetary failure. Carbon offsets happen to be a tangible, relatively simple way of doing something.
The political scientist Theodore Lowi classified public policies in terms of the relative concentration or diffusion of their costs and benefits. The most politically attractive policies would have concentrated benefits and diffused costs; where the values were reversed, the odds against any action being taken would skyrocket. Tax cuts for the rich are easy; stopping climate change is hard.
But there is a deeper level issue at work here that’s perhaps less obvious. The intricate web of policy advocates, NGO leaders, academics, and opiners has created a cocoon of disempowerment. If you can’t articulate the difference between the CPP and the RTC, you shouldn’t trouble yourself with these types of matters, so the perception goes. Speaking disparagingly about carbon offsets, one Greenpeace strategist was quoted saying “I think there is an appeal [to the public] because it seems like it’s some kind of easy way of dealing with a very, very complicated problem.” In other words, if you really understood things you wouldn’t bother with carbon offsets.
This gap between expertise and action is a problem and the reason the carbon offset market is thriving right now is that it’s being bridged very effectively by companies like Patch and Wren that are making esoteric scientific concepts accessible to the broader public. I don’t have to be a forest scientist to buy a carbon offset, but I can see how in doing so I might be making a difference in the survivability of the planet.
As we try to make sense of Joe Manchin and the upcoming COP shindig, there’s no doubt that better policies could be enacted that would drive substantial reductions in carbon emissions. But it’s also a mistake to assume that these are the only solutions. Or that you have to be an expert in the minutiae of energy policy to participate in the conversation. Most of us, experts or not, just want a planet that we can inhabit. Maybe, rather than waiting around to be disappointed by our government, we should take a page from the Millenials that are funding carbon offsets and ask what else we can do to take matters into our own hands. We might surprise ourselves.