Pluralistic: 11 Mar 2022

Today's links

An altered cover of Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged.' Atlas has been replaced by Monopoly's Rich Uncle Pennybags, his face a skull-mask, dancing a jig. He is golden-colored. The rising sun has been replaced by a rising Earth, wreathed in flames.

The SEC must not legitimize fake "carbon offsets" (permalink)

Later this month, the SEC will release its "climate disclosure rule," which could be a turning point for the carbon offset "market," which is a presently a dumpster fire of accounting fraud, lies, and moral hazard:

It's not clear whether the Commission will actually tackle offsets, and if they do, it's not clear whether they'll do so well. Certainly, the business lobby has pulled out all the stops to make sure that offsets remain a tool for greenwashing and carbon laundering.

But they really should act. As The Revolving Door Project's Dylan Gyauch-Lewis and Hannah Story Brown write in "The Industry Agenda: Carbon Offsets," if the unregulated securities sold as "offsets" actually do anything to forestall the climate apocalypse, it's largely coincidental.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's paid attention. "Charities" like The Nature Conservancy have brought in $932m from selling "offsets" to plunderers like JP Morgan that don't offset anything. For example, the Conservancy generated $2m worth of offsets for announcing it wouldn't log the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association's 2380 acres of Pennsylvania forest. But that forest was already a conservancy, and would never have been logged. The Conservancy's pledge not to log it did nothing to reduce the Earth's carbon emergency.

This is by design. The Conservancy pioneered greenwashing. As Conservancy president Patrick Noonan quipped, "The only problem with tainted money is there tain't enough of it."

Even where offsets do have a credible claim of reducing the amount of carbon likely to be emitted, that claim is brittle and contingent. Last summer's Bootleg Fire in Oregon consumed vast carbon offset forests, releasing carbon that someone had paid not to release:

That possibility was foreseen by Oregon's own forestry and climate experts – but the fossil fuel giants laundered some of the excess profits they got from cheap offsets to corrupt Oregon's regulators and push through these new, useless offsets.

The whole business of offsets is grounded in denial – the denialist belief that markets can be forced to "internalize" the "externalities" of doing business. Using markets to address the climate emergency is like switching to light cigarettes after you discover that you have stage-four lung cancer.

Carbon offsets have been a market for lemons since the very beginning. It's been more than a decade since the Christian Science Monitor described the market as a "Wild West…ripe for fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects that probably do little to ease global warming."

Offsets have only gotten worse since. Huge amounts of money have poured into "ESG" ("Environmental, Social, and Governance") funds that are supposed to let you save for your retirement without forcing you to spend your twilight years in a flaming, uninhabitable wasteland.

ESG is where Gresham's Law ("bad money drives out good") meets greenwashing. The cheapest offsets to produce are the ones that do the least. Today, the offset market has been fully transformed into a "market for lemons" where the good products are the least desirable:

Writing for The American Prospect, Gyauch-Lewis summarizes his paper's findings, showing how offsets are a form of colonialism, pushing the costs of fighting the climate emergency onto the poorest people in the world, who have contributed least to the emergency:

Offsets are ripe for SEC regulation, thanks to the endless creativity of fraud that goes into the asset class: double-counting (multiple parties counting the same offset) and additionality (claiming an offset for doing nothing).

More pernicious is the problem of "suppressed demand": where a project claims that it will address future pollution "based on assumed carbon emissions rather than actual carbon emissions."

The offset market is global, complex and growing. Offset market makers are able to use the dispersed, complex, high velocity nature of the sector to hide a multitude of sins from investors and regulators.

As Gyauch-Lewis points out, rendering the only known planet capable of supporting human life uninhabitable "poses a dire risk to the financial system," placing it squarely in the SEC's remit.

The measures that the offset industry are hoping to block are so commonsensical and modest that the opposition tells you exactly how fraudulent the industry is.

  • requiring companies to report gross instead of net emissions,

  • identify all specific carbon offset projects they invest in to lower their net emissions, and

  • qualify emissions "prevention" vs emissions "reduction."

By contrast, the ESG industry is lobbying for minimal disclosures of climate risk management, with no distinction between "prevention" and "reduction," which will exacerbate the already ferocious integrity problem in offsets. It would pave the way for expensive boondoggles like carbon capture, a fossil fuel industry backed proposal that is too wimpy and expensive to address the emergency, by orders of magnitude.

These greenwashing projects have already absorbed $1b in public money from the Department of Energy, with nothing to show for it.

The Infrastructure Bill pumps another $12.2b into the sector:

Without regulations of offsets, carbon capture could easily become the king of all offsets, doing nothing for the planet and allowing the unabated burning of fossil fuels.

Offsets have a problem, and that problem is applying market logic (what is the right price) to a human right (to have a habitable planet). As the Climate Ad Project's brilliant 2021 video put it, a "carbon offset" makes as much sense as a "murder offset":

If there's something companies shouldn't do, then they shouldn't do it. Selling indulgences won't maintain a habitable planet fit for the human race.

(Image: Cristian Ibarra Santillan, CC BY 2.0, Penguin Publishing Groups, NASA, Parker Brothers, Unknown; modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Asimov died of AIDS

#20yrsago The SSSCA is baaaaack

#15yrsago Blackwater: superbly researched indictment of America’s hired killers

#10yrsago Fed court: quoting newspaper articles online is fair use

#10yrsago RIP, Moebius

#5yrsago Orange County’s Seal Beach jail offers posh, $100/day accommodations to rich crooks

#5yrsago Three wealthy Americans are the major financial backers of Geert Wilders’ Islamophobic election campaign

#5yrsago Fiverr’s new recruiting ad promises to literally work you to death

#5yrsago America’s spooks want Congress to extend massive spying powers but still won’t answer Congress’s basic questions

#5yrsago Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson blames Net Neutrality for porn and bad health care

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 509 words (71758 words total).

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. Yesterday's progress: 282 words (5153 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: All (Broadband) Politics Are Local
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "What is 'Peak Indifference?'"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla