Airplane on takeoff

Dear Sara,

Are carbon offsets for real? For many years, we’ve purchased carbon offsets when we travel by whatever means. Have we fallen for a scam? I suppose that like many opportunities, some could be valid, others, not. How can we tell whether we’re throwing our money away or not and whether we’re really ‘offsetting’ carbon and reducing our personal carbon footprints?

– Perplexed in Iowa City

It depends. Some carbon-offset projects – which are supposed to compensate for the heat-trapping gases you release to the atmosphere by taking a plane trip, for example – are scams. In one notorious case, the Vatican was presented with offset certificates for millions of trees that were never planted.

Even if a project actually exists, offsets have the potential to go wrong in other ways. Say you’re promised that your purchase will help pay for a new wind farm, but then you learn that the wind farm was going to be built even without the help of offsets. You’d feel cheated, and rightly so. To truly compensate for your pollution, any offset project must be in addition to the normal course of business. For more on this problem and related complexities, see this NRDC overview.

To protect your wallet, you can buy offsets that have been authenticated by third-party certification programs, such as Verified Carbon Standard, Gold Standard, and Green-e Climate Standard. Those programs help confirm that projects actually exist and that you’re not wasting your money.

Some critics argue that offsets are the modern equivalent of “indulgences,” the practice of reducing punishment for sin that was commercialized and much-abused in the Middle Ages. I don’t buy that argument: The goal is to reduce the total amount of heat-trapping gases, and legitimate offset projects do that.

A more compelling criticism is that offsets often don’t address the root of the problem: the lack of cleaner transportation options. So far, the U.S. has largely chosen to build gas stations and airports rather than electric vehicle charging infrastructure and train stations. That makes it tough for most people to lighten their footprints.

So if third-party certification programs don’t alleviate your fear of getting scammed, there’s another ethical option. The next time you take a trip, you could skip the offsets and donate an equivalent amount of money to a civic leader or organization working to make cleaner transportation options available to more people.

Update added 5/23/2019: ProPublica just published an important investigation of forest preservation offsets, which you can read here. Reporter Lisa Song writes, “If the world were graded on the historic reliability of carbon offsets, the result would be a solid F.” As she notes, a 2016 European Union study found that 85 percent of offset projects studied cannot truly be called “additional” — as in the wind farm example given above. The study also found that many offset projects overestimate the emissions reductions resulting from their work. 

Dear Sara,

My mom was asking me questions about global warming. She doesn’t get it, but I can see she wants to. I was having a hard time boiling it down. She also asked why Michigan winters have been colder than ever if the Earth is heating up (the ol’ climate vs. weather issue) and I found I wasn’t able to give her a succinct answer.

Do you have suggestions to very basic articles about both I can send her? I feel like I’m having a breakthrough in rural Michigan and I don’t want to lose it.

– Educate My Mom, Please

Your mom wants to learn and sees you as a resource. That’s huge.

Start by sending her NASA’s introduction to climate change. You might also look at “EARTH: The Operator’s Manual,” a PBS series hosted by climate scientist Richard Alley. Short segments are available online, so you can pick out one or two that answer her questions.

As for climate and weather, have her watch this video, which explains the difference in a little more than a minute. (There’s even a dog in it. All climate change videos should include dogs.)

And gently push back on your mom’s notion that winters in Michigan are “colder than ever.” In fact, Upper Midwest winters are among the fastest-warming in the country. See this New York Times article: “Where Are America’s Winters Warming the Most? In Cold Places.”

Ask your mom why she believes (mistakenly) that Michigan winters are growing colder. My guess is that a few recent brutal cold snaps are influencing her perception. On days when Arctic air is blasting outdoor temperatures into frostbite territory, it can be hard to accept that the planet is heating up.

If that’s the case, encourage her to watch this 18-minute TEDx talk that climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe gave at Texas Tech University in 2015. At the time of her talk, it had recently snowed in the area – an unusual weather event in west Texas.

“I have to admit,” Hayhoe jokes, “when I was scraping the snow and ice off my car, I was tempted to think, ‘Where’s global warming now? I’d like a little of that, please.’”

Hayhoe points out that during the period when it snowed in Texas, other parts of the world were unusually hot. “The lesson here is that it isn’t just what we see in front of our own eyes that can tell us whether global warming is real,” she says.

YouTube video

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Dear Sara,

My husband and I are not wealthy, but we do donate each year and we want to give to meaningful causes. One of the issues we feel strongly about is global climate change, but we don’t know what would be the best place to give to make a difference. What about a group dedicated to helping with family planning? Help!

– How Do I Put My Money Where My Mouth Is?

For guidance on which climate efforts are worth your money, look to Project Drawdown. Its researchers evaluated more than 100 proposed solutions to global climate change, analyzing each one on effectiveness at reducing heat-trapping gases, scalability, economic viability, and more. They then ranked the top 80 solutions; you can view the list here.

Since you asked about family planning: They found that family planning and educating girls are among the most effective ways to address climate change.

Why? The U.N. expects the global population to grow to roughly 9.8 billion people by 2050. Although much of that growth will occur in less affluent, less-polluting countries, adding 2.1 billion people to the planet will result in additional resource consumption and pollution.

Population control efforts have an ugly history of racism and human-rights abuses, such as forced sterilizations. For that reason, respected public health organizations now focus on voluntary family planning and educating girls. Those approaches reduce birth rates while empowering people, rather than coercing them.

According to Project Drawdown, providing access to education and high-quality family planning to all those who want it would prevent about 100 gigatons of global warming pollution by 2050. That’s enormous. By comparison, restoring an area of rainforest roughly four times the size of California would soak up about 60 gigatons of pollution.

So yes, you can feel good about donating to organizations that are working on access to education and family planning. The impact on the climate is real and substantial, and so is the benefit to individuals around the world. As Project Drawdown puts it, “When family planning focuses on healthcare provision and meeting women’s expressed needs, empowerment, equality, and well-being are the result; the benefits to the planet are side effects.”

– Sara

Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Explore the “Ask Sara” archive.

Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...