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Offsets and Indulgences

As I drove the 16(ish) hours from Toronto to Atlanta, I had a lot of time to think. Not only did I plan out what may just be my next book, but I also thought a lot about this whole global warming controversy. The day before I had read a book about the Reformation and I realized a stark similarity between the conditions prior to the Reformation and contemporary environmentalism. Now I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw this comparison. But indulge me.

In 1517 Pope Leo X made a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel commissioner of indulgences for all Germany. The Vatican was in dire need of money to pay for its extravagant building and art projects. Tetzel soon toured around the country selling papal indulgences to the masses. He created a little rhyme which translates as “When a coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel is famous (or infamous) for having even created a chart documenting how much it would cost to receive an indulgence for various sins, and even boasted that the indulgences he sold could secure forgiveness for the heinous sin of violating the Virgin Mary. An indulgence is simply a pardon of the temporal punishment due for sins committed. In other words, a person who purchased an indulgence would supposedly escape the punishment merited by his sin.

Fast forward to 2007 and we are in the midst of a controversy about global warming. Some people claim that humans are responsible for an increase in the world’s temperature with the prime culprit being carbon dioxide emissions. Some scientists dispute this, but most people in our society are convinced that humans are causing global warming and that we need to radically alter our behavior if we are to save this planet. Leading this charge is Al Gore whose slideshow/film just won an Academy Award and who is currently the golden boy of the Hollywood crowd.

Just a couple of weeks ago it came out in the news that Gore, who tours North America trying to convince people they need to reduce the amount of energy they use, has a home that consumes twenty times the national average. The average household consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours per year. In 2006, the Gore home consumed nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours. In the world of environmentalists, this has to be the rough equivalent of raping the Virgin Mary. Thankfully, Gore has found his Tetzel and has purchased indulgences. Gore’s spokesman says that he and Tipper “purchase offsets for their carbon emissions to bring their carbon footprint down to zero.”

According to the David Suzuki Foundation (David Suzuki is Canada’s answer to Al Gore) “A ‘carbon offset’ is an emission reduction credit from another organization’s project that results in less carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than would otherwise occur. Carbon offsets are typically measured in tons of CO2-equivalents (or ‘CO2e’) and are bought and sold through a number of international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms.”

Gore buys his carbon offsets from Generation Investment Management LLP, which is “an independent, private, owner-managed partnership established in 2004 and with offices in London and Washington, D.C.,” that, for a fee, will invest your money in “high-quality companies at attractive prices that will deliver superior long-term investment returns.” Gore just happens to be the Chairman and founding partner of this tax-exempt company. So Gore is his own Tetzel. When a coin in the coffer rings, an oxygen molecule to the atmosphere springs. And Gore pats himself on the back. I found it interesting to hear that the gift bags given to participants in the Academy Awards contained carbon offsets sufficient to offset a year’s worth of emissions. Clearly these Hollywood types are very interested in atoning for their environmental sins.

Carbon offsets don’t really do anything. Most people don’t even pretend that they do anything more than raise awareness for environmental issues. And, of course, they pad the pockets of people selling them. According to Canada’s Free Press they “(1) demonstrate commitment to taking action on climate change; (2) add an economic component to climate change; (3) help engage and educate the public; and (4) may provide local social and environmental benefits that help to encourage the use of low-carbon technologies…The real design behind offsetting, then, is to impact the public debate, not to avert the dreaded global warming. “

They are much like indulgences in that way, aren’t they? The papacy promised that indulgences would cause those purchasing them to avoid the punishment their sins deserved. But this is a promise that can never be fulfilled. If the people purchasing indulgences were true believers, they should have know that Christ had already taken the full punishment for their sin. If they were not true believers, nothing will reduce the just sentence for their crime. They will suffer horribly and will suffer eternally despite the piece of paper given to them. Their indulgences will not offset their crimes.

I was amazed, as I thought about this, how humans are so eager to rely on their own actions instead of grace. Indulgences bypass grace through action, through human merit. Carbon offsets do the same, relying on self-punishment (purchasing “forgiveness” for crimes committed) to assuage guilt. By purchasing an indulgence a person neither needs to regret nor change his behavior. He can simply buy forgiveness in the form of a piece of paper. The same is true with carbon offsets. A person can continue to drive his SUV and fly around the world in a private jet, but have his conscience clear because he has offset his guilt with the offsets he purchases. If we ever reach the point where we are forced by the government to purchase carbon offsets, it is the poor who will suffer and the rich who will benefit. There will be no equality.

Indulgences and carbon offsets showed me something. Somewhere in the human heart is something that demands justice, but demands a perverted justice. It demands a justice that is so human, so flawed. It demands a justice that does not rely on grace.