A Pardoner’s Tale

Are you a carbon-using Christian? Feeling guilty about all that carbon dioxide (CO2) you pump into the atmosphere by such awful things as breathing, heating and cooling your home, lighting your work or study space, or driving to church? Now, like traditional sinners whose only mistake was breaking the Ten Commandments, you can atone for your carbon sins by buying carbon offsets from the Evangelical Climate Initiative — though I thought it was pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism, not Protestant evangelicalism, that endorsed indulgences.The ECI now offers to help you expiate your carbon sins quickly and easily, online. (But wait; to go online, you must use your computer, which uses electricity, which probably is generated by burning coal or oil, which puts more carbon into the air. Might it be better to stay off the Web and pray instead?)It's a simple, two-step process.First, you go through a page that helps you “Do What You Can” by selecting simple actions you can promise to take now to reduce your carbon emissions in transportation, home, and society. There's no telling, of course, just by how much you'll reduce your emissions, because none of these actions is quantified. For example, you might volunteer to change your driving habits by accelerating and stopping more gradually, thus saving fuel. But how much more gradually? Five percent? Twenty? Thirty? Each will yield a different emission reduction — and it'll be impossible to know how much emission reduction you've achieved. Keep this in mind for later. As it happens, I already do two of the big things that will set me along the right path. Am I without sin? It doesn't appear so, as we'll find out.Secondly, you come to a page that offers you the opportunity to “Offset the Rest.” Here's where the Evangelical Climate Initiative becomes the Medieval Catholic Indulgence Initiative.The copy reads like one of those late-night TV infomercials punctuated with “But wait! There's more!”: After doing what you can, the second step is to pay us $99 per year to reduce your global warming pollution to zero….Your $99 contribution to the cause of helping to solve global warming is an investment in creating a better future for our children and those most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Reducing your emissions to zero is part of fulfilling Jesus' teaching to love our neighbors and be a proper steward of God's creation.To do this we offset your emissions by reducing global warming pollution through contributions to energy efficiency projects, renewable energy projects, and reforestation projects….

Funny, my King James Bible doesn't mention that reducing my carbon emissions to zero is part of fulfilling Jesus' teaching to love my neighbors or be a steward of God's creation. Just to be sure I wasn't missing something, I consulted a Concordance and did a search for the phrases “carbon emissions” and “carbon neutral.” Strangely, I found neither. I couldn't even find the word “carbon.” (I did find uses of the word “emission,” in newer translations, but on a different subject entirely.) Maybe the ECI folks, in keeping with their infomercial ad approach, are using the “New! Improved! Expanded!” version of the Bible.But that's not all! (Oh, no, I've succumbed to the contagion!) How in God's creation can ECI know that $99 is going to be not too much, not too little, but just right to “offset the rest” of my carbon emissions if we couldn't quantify what my emissions were in the first place, or what the “Do What You Can” steps I chose to take would accomplish? Not to worry. ECI tells us that “The average American is responsible for about 23 tons of CO2 pollution.” And it just so happens that $99 (Not $78 or $103.54? How did it just happen to come to a price right under the $100 threshold past which consumers are much less likely to purchase?) is just enough to offset 23 tons of CO2 per year — neither 22 tons nor 24, but the magic…er, I mean, very Christian, number 23.ECI works all this out in partnership with carbonfund.org, which features a serious-looking, complicated way to figure out — eureka! — “exactly how much CO2 you're responsible for.” A sample — might it be based on something like an average? — suggests 16.11 tons of CO2 for an individual, for which the offset cost is $88.61. That works out to a little more than $5.50 per ton. Multiplying that by 23 tons would give an offset price of $126.51, so apparently ECI is offering us a discount rate. I can hear it now: “But wait! Now, for a limited time only, you can get your 23-ton carbon offset for a discounted price of $99! You save $27.51, over 20 percent! Order now and we'll send you a set of Ginsu knives, absolutely free!”

BUT I DIGRESS. We were wondering how ECI could know for certain that $99 would offset “the rest.” Well, it turns out that ECI wants you to do a work of supererogation — above and beyond the requirements of its new, improved, and expanded version of the Word of God. After you “Do What You Can” to reduce your carbon emissions, you buy an indulgence sufficient to pay for all your carbon emissions before reduction! Presumably this leaves a treasury of merit that ECI can dole out to others. But I wouldn't hold my breath — though that would reduce my own CO2 emissions — waiting for that, since that would diminish ECI's revenues from the project.What I find most interesting is that I had previously worked out, using the EPA's emissions calculator, that carbon emissions for my entire family come to 30,502 lbs. of CO2 per year. Carbonfund.org tells me that I only need to buy a $99 offset package if my individual emissions are over 50,715 lbs for the year. Using carbonfund's own $5.50-per-metric-ton figure, it turns out I'm not getting a discount, I'm being overcharged by ECI for about $20. Is this hypererogation?ECI doesn't mention that while the average American is responsible for 23 tons of CO2 emissions per year, Al Gore's Nashville house — he's got others — uses 20 times as much electricity as the average American's home. Maybe ECI can get Gore to buy his carbon offsets from them? Sorry. That won't happen. Gore is part owner of his own carbon offsets and trading companies and gets his offsets as part of his benefits package. ECI isn't the only party with something to gain from scaring people about global warming. Be all that as it may, having read through the “Offset the Rest” page you come to the button to “Purchase your offset now.”The next page offers you various levels of donation — not purchase, mind you, this is pure donation, though it does buy you a clean, green conscience — ranging from the still-rankling minimum of $99 to the princely sum of $1,099 — and then, for students, $25. (So that's what they do with the excess merits from the works of supererogation by all those saints who offset more CO2 than they emit!) You even have the opportunity to make this a recurring donation every year, quarter, or month. Then you can choose the types of offsets you want to buy — renewable energy, energy efficiency, or reforestation. Finally, you fill in your personal details, and give ECI your credit card information.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, I didn't pony up the money. So when I clicked “Cancel” instead, a page came up that told me “There was an error processing your step 2 payment. This step has not yet been completed.” Oh yes, it has!One last concern: Where's the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on ECI's moneymaking site? Or the Better Business Bureau logo? Or the link to information about how the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates the carbon offsets and carbon trading businesses to make sure there's no monkey business going on? They're not there, because — well, because there is no regulation of this business. Apparently the ECI has finally found a tiny bit of the free market that it doesn't want to strangle with regulation. One wonders, though, what happened to the ECI's strong suspicion of sin in every branch of the corporate world. Or is the carbon offset industry impeccable?It appears to me that this particular branch of evangelical theology is in dire need of a reformation. When it comes to the sin of carbon emission, perhaps carbon-using Christians should remember the words of Martin Luther's Letter to Melanchthon: “Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.”Iain Murray is a member of the Church of England. His wife and children are Roman Catholics. He works at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.