Outsourced to Mark Kleiman:
The Reality-Based Community: Greenhouse-gas footprints and environmental activism: John Tierney, demoted from the NYT op-ed page and now continuing his libertarian propagandizing in the guise of "science writing," points out that flying around to climate-change conferences creates a large carbon footprint for high-profile environmental activists. That allows Tierney to claim the sort of faux-populist gotcha! so beloved among glibertarians and greedhead conservatives. (The theocrat, nativist, and imperialist wings of conservatism prefer their faux-populist gotcha!s on different topics.)
If you travel frequently by air, even on commercial flights, you can’t escape having a huge carbon footprint. Yet many of the most vocal advocates of cutting emissions — politicians, environmentalists, journalists, scientists — are continually jetting off to campaign events and conferences and workshops. Are they going to change the way they operate? If not, how are they going to persuade anyone else to cut back emissions? (My advice to the peripatetic preachers: Do not try explaining why your work is more important than everyone else’s.)
Where to start?
The point of environmental management isn't to denounce sin, it's to get prices right. The problem with GHG-emitting activities is that they are artificially underpriced due to the lack of a carbon tax (or equivalent mechanism, such as cap-and-trade, for internalizing the external costs of those activities). With the right prices, the cost of conferences with physical attendance will rise, improving the competitive position of alternatives such as high-quality teleconferencing, which allows people to meet virtually rather than physically. But if people want or need to confer in person, and are willing to pay the full price including the price of the environmental damage their travel does, they can do so with a clear conscience.
Rich people use more goods and services than poor people. That's what "rich" means. Of course multi-millionaires have larger gross GHG footprints than you and I do. So what? If Tierney wants to work on decreasing income gradients, I'm all for it. But of course he's not. He just hates the idea that some rich people use their wealth to promote ideas he dislikes.
A large gross carbon footprint doesn't imply a large net carbon footprint. That's what offsets are about. Once GHG contributions are priced appropriately, there won't be any need for private offset purchases. But in the meantime someone who wants to be personally GHG-neutral can get there by writing checks for the activities necessary to offset his or her footprint. Tierney's admirer and fellow faux-populist glibertarian Glenn Reynolds thinks that this is no better than "buying indulgences." The difference, of course, is that the purchase of an indulgence didn't offset the damage done by the underlying sin (and certainly didn't make reparation to the other people injured by it), while GHG offsets actually undo the original damage. If Al Gore is prepared to pay for enough carbon sequestration or tree-planting or whatever to offset the GHG costs of his house and his air travel, it's no skin off my nose, and given the nature of market transactions it's a benefit to whomever he's buying the offsets from; otherwise those people wouldn't be willing to sell at the price. Isn't it astonishing how many devotees of "the free market" know jack sh*t about how market processes actually work?
Footnote Yes, Tierney's technique is precisely that of feminists who criticize anti-feminist women such as Phyllis Schlafly for not staying home and raising their kids, as anti-feminist ideology would dictate. And the technique is equally dishonest and offensive in the two cases. Schlafly is a liar and a scoundrel, but she ought to be criticized for what she says, not for entering into the debate. Is she supposed to leave the case for sex-role differentiation to be made exclusively by men, which would discredit it from the outset?
Second footnote Yes, there are some fools on the "moral/spiritual" or "deep environmentalist" end of the spectrum who also disdain offsets as indulgences. Indeed, the Al Gore who wrote Earth in the Balance might not have been fully comfortable with the offset idea. But if he's learned something in the meantime, and the climate-change denialists haven't, it's not Gore who warrants criticism.
Third footnote And yes, offsets are not without their practical problems, especially the problem of choosing a baseline. But that's a technical issue, not the basis for an objection in principle.