In June 2011, FERN, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation UK produced a report which counters some of the misconceptions about the suitability of carbon markets to finance forest protection.
The report, titled, “REDD+ and carbon markets: Ten Myths Exploded” (pdf file 1.1 MB), was produced in part as a response to a submission to the UNFCCC produced in February 2011 by a group consisting mainly of big US-based conservation NGOs (BINGOs). The BINGO’s submission argues in favour of using markets to finance REDD+.
The organisations that signed the submission to the UNFCCC are Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rainforest Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Wildlife Conservation Society and World Vision International. Their statement is available here: “Views on new market-based mechanisms Using markets for the full implementation of REDD+” (pdf file 125.3 kB).
FERN, FoE, Greenpeace and RFUK[*] respond by examining 10 of the arguments in favour of carbon trading, to “challenge the assumption that it is a useful and cost-effective way of mitigating climate change”. The report analyses these arguments in turn and explains how each is flawed. For example, the argument that offsets are a cheap way of reducing emissions is countered as follows:
REDD+ as an offset mechanism does not reduce emissions, it merely moves them from one place to another. Therefore it cannot help stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations on the scale or at the speed necessary to prevent runaway climate change. REDD+ can only contribute towards combating climate change if it is not financed through offsets.
In this post, however, I’m more interested in why the BINGOs argue in favour of carbon trading, as opposed to what they argue. For this, we need to refer to the work of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
In their response, FERN, FoE, Greenpeace and RFUK describe the arguments in favour of carbon trading as “myths”. The word “myth” is not bad as a way of describing the arguments put forward in favour of carbon trading, in the sense that a myth is a “fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology”. However, a better word might be “bullshit”, as defined by Frankfurt in his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit”.
Frankfurt explains that bullshit is not the same as lying. He concludes in his essay that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”. This is because the liar is concerned about the truth, even if only in order to conceal it. To the bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshit can either be true or false. Its purpose is purely to promote the bullshitter’s agenda.
In his essay, Frankfurt writes that,
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
In an interview in January 2005, Frankfurt was asked, “What is bullshit?”. He responded as follows:
“It consists in a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true or even to say things that are false, but serving some other purpose. And the question of whether what he says is true or false is irrelevant to his pursuit of that ambition. The bullshitter is not necessarily a liar….
“Bullshit is somehow a more insidious threat to the values that I’m concerned with than lying is, because the liar knows what the truth is and he’s concerned with trying to keep people away from the truth. This in itself shows a certain respect for the value of truth and the importance of truth. Whereas the bullshitter doesn’t care at all. So his stance is a greater threat to respect and concern for the truth than the liar’s is. The liar wants to substitute for the truth something that he knows or believes to be false. So the difference between truth and falsehood is very important to him, whereas to the bullshitter it’s not important at all. That’s why I think that there’s a more insidious threat to concern and respect for truth in bullshit than in lying.”
This, I think, is a useful description of the way proponents of carbon trading discuss carbon trading. They are not interested in establishing truth or falsity, instead they are interested in the pursuit of their ambition.
In this case, the BINGO’s ambition is to promote their own interests. Their interests are a model of conservation that requires large sums of money (for the BINGOs), through which they can control and manage vast areas of tropical forests. Carbon trading provides a means of accessing this money. Whether the money comes from massively polluting corporations is irrelevant to them, as is the question of whether carbon trading will address runaway climate change. So, for example, when challenged at a side event in Bonn in 2009, about the importance of reducing emissions from fossil fuels through meaningful targets in the USA, The Nature Conservancy’s Duncan Marsh simply shrugged off the question.
Here’s how Frankfurt explains why there is so much bullshit around these days:
“The increase in the amount of bullshit in contemporary life as compared with, say 100 years ago, is because of the intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society. We are constantly marketing things, selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programmes, selling policies and once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something then your object is not to tell the truth about it but to get people to believe what you want them to believe about it. And so this encourages a resort to bullshit.”
None of this is to criticise the “REDD+ and carbon markets: Ten Myths Exploded”, report by FERN, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Rainforest Foundation UK. The report is well written and presents a series of strong arguments against trading forest carbon. It is highly recommended reading. But the report does not explain why the BINGOs put forward the arguments they do. For that, we need to turn to Harry Frankfurt’s analysis. The BINGOs are selling carbon trading as a policy, because of the benefits they stand to gain as a result.
Full disclosure: FERN and RFUK are among the funders of REDD-Monitor. For a full list of organisations that have funded REDD-Monitor, see “About REDD-Monitor”.