H.L. Mencken famously said that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” That lies at the heart of Alaska’s plan to sell “carbon offsets” to emitters in the Lower 48. The basic idea is that Alaska sell certificates promising not to release carbon in the future by our not exploiting resources that we wouldn’t be exploiting anyway. The buyer then becomes “carbon neutral” by balancing Alaska’s future non-pollution against its pollution in the here and now.
It’s similar in concept to the sale of “Indulgences” by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. These were church-issued certificates that forgave people’s sins and thus reduced their time in purgatory. (The proceeds of those sales were used, among other things, to build St. Peter’s Basilica.) The principle of the carbon offsets is about the same. You pay Alaska not to pollute the air, and that forgives you for polluting the air. For Alaska, the plan has a huge potential upside with almost no downside. That explains the almost unanimous approval of the plan by the Legislature.
The key to success, however, is the continuation and even expansion of the absurd magical thinking that goes with it — the idea that your polluting is somehow canceled out by my not polluting.
The selling point is that when your local electric utility buys Alaska carbon offsets, they are selling you electricity that has been purged of sin. The electric company doesn’t care. The money it sends to Alaska just gets blended into everybody’s monthly bills. But it does make it a little easier for people not to think about the tons of carbon being emitted by the jets taking them on vacation. (Of course, the fact that the higher rates make the poor a little poorer doesn’t get thought of at all.)
So the whole thing leaves me with profoundly mixed feelings.
Part of me hopes that this kind of “green” nonsense gets unmasked and abandoned. But another part of me is resigned to thinking that Mencken had it right and that Alaska shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to build St. Mike’s Basilica in honor of the governor (or, more likely, a bigger Permanent Fund dividend.)
— Herb Berkowitz
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