The Guilted Age of Carbon

Tad DeLay

The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.1

Theodor Adorno

Everything Will Be Fine

Reading through horoscope columns in the Los Angeles Times in 1953, Theodor Adorno found a signal on repeat: everything will be fine.2 Astrology, in his estimation, wasn’t irrational tout court but instead served as a pseudo-rationality for the overly self-involved, a regression in consciousness, a sort of “rational self-preservation ‘run amok.’”3 God is dead, so we found in the heavens a mythology even more absurd than the theologies we abandoned. Everything will be fine.

Net zero goals, ambitious policy pledges, and the exponential growth in renewables suck up so much attention that it’s easy to lose sight of a singular fact: the atmospheric concentrations of all major greenhouse gasses are still growing. And nobody has any idea when that might change.

The Protestant Reformation famously began with Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, which inveighed against indulgences. These allowed the penitent to perform a righteous act (like donating to the church) to truncate their future days in purgatory. As summarized in a phrase attributed to the preacher Johann Tetzel: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther noticed, and criticized, that the faithful were no longer seeking confession—not to mention that the church was embezzling money from poor peasants and depositing it in wealthy pockets.

Carbon offsets are often compared to indulgences. Pay a fee, call it virtue, and enjoy moral absolution. But at least the people swindled by indulgences were only financially harmed. In contrast, paying a few dollars to plant a tree and soothe one’s feelings does not only charge you under false premises, laundering the continuation of emissions while making for an utterly negligible climate mitigation—it also often means that well-meaning, eco-conscious people are unknowingly participating in the expropriation of the property of the poor, and, in some cases, the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples.

In 1989, an American electric company called Applied Energy Services created the first carbon offset program as a part of their plans for a coal-fired power station. In Guatemala, they planted a large number of trees to ostensibly counter the station’s emissions. The primary impact of this move was to inflict damage on the local ecosystem by introducing 50 million individuals of a non-native species. This also criminalized activities upon which locals depended, like gathering firewood.4 Moreover, the project was supposed to offset the plant’s entire lifetime emissions—but after ten years, an evaluation found that less than 2% of the promised emissions had been sequestered. You’d like to think that in the intervening years we could have bumped those stats up, but a prominent study three decades later found that, again, only 2% of the offsets program was highly likely to reduce emissions—attributing any more would be an overestimation.5

A new company called YepYou stretched absolution to the absurd.6 Billing itself a the “World’s First Human Breath Carbon Offset,” YepYou offers customers to pay a fee to erase the sin of emissions just from breathing out CO2, starting at $17 dollars per year. What a deal! You can even pay to offset your pet’s breath.

Business as Usual

We are on track to burn through all current oil and natural gas reserves around the time millennials become centenarians. But in truth, we can keep burning far longer, unfortunately, because reserves are only a subset of total resources. Reserves are the portion that we can extract with today’s technology, at going prices. How big of a gap exists between the two? For perspective, burning all reserves would raise temperatures another 1.5°C, but burning all resources (a truly absurd and impossible task) would raise temperature by an unthinkable 20.5°C.7 The remaining time left on reserves, called a reserve-to-production ratio, has remained stable at roughly half a century for, well, half a century. Time never closes on reserves. Time only expires for the climate, for biodiversity, for everything else. 

“Business as usual” is an interesting phrase to deploy. After all, the norm is crisis in the business cycle: growing pauperization and dispossession, monopolization within the bourgeois class, and increased profits through seigniorage, financialization, and fictitious capital that are coinciding with a declining rate of industry profit. Business as usual does not mean high growth. Climatologists know this, and have lamented how the highest emissions scenario, RCP8.5 (depicting a tripling of emissions and warming as high as 5.7°C by 2100), has been labeled by the media as “business as usual.” Thankfully, that’s not accurate—but current trends are bad enough. Business as usual means, at the very least, that nothing will be fine. 

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report said existing policies (true business as usual) extrapolate to 3.2°C of warming by 2100, maybe a little less, if policy innovations hold. Too bad accessible fossil fuel reserves are worth a couple hundred trillion dollars, and total resources as much as $2.5 quadrillion.8 The law of capitalist accumulation which Marx formulated as M–C–M’ means the drive to exploit labor and natural resources is pushing us ever closer to a climate not seen since the Pliocene Epoch, the last time carbon dioxide passed 400 parts per million, when the oceans pulsed 15–25 meters higher. In the deep past, all five of the big mass extinctions involved large fluctuations in carbon dioxide. However many more mass extinctions follow in the next 800 million years, at which point carbon dioxide will drop too low for photosynthesis and the last animals will starve, they will surely track with extreme swings in greenhouse gasses.

Two Denials

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone were in charge? There should be a plan. It would be nice if, as Bill Clinton cutely put it, “Adam Smith’s invisible hand can have a green thumb.” We’d like things to be different. “Obviously it could go better,” said psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his critique of deranged capitalist discourse. “What would be needed would be for the master discourse to be a little less primary, and, to say it all, not so fucking stupid.” Yes, it would be nice if there were a plan! If tech lords were not so foolish and their bribed policymakers so cowardly! If your emissions from driving for groceries wouldn’t linger for half a million years and kill species that haven’t yet evolved.

Freud once observed that his analysands (patients) responded in one of two ways when a repressed idea surfaced. Some analysands negated reality itself, preferring instead to live out a delusion. Others rejected some moral attribute of the idea or distanced themselves from fault. A simple schema for negation: reality-denial or guilt-denial.9 Luckily, Americans have a major party to represent whichever of the two paths of climate denial you may wish to take. Liberals especially love wallowing in guilt. They wish to complain to a manager, someone in charge who can arrest the impure.

One advantage of American incuriosity and optimism is that you needn’t worry about killing off your grandchildren if you don’t want to. We have plenty of options to silo our guilt. As I documented in my book Against: What Does the Evangelical Want?, about two-thirds of white evangelicals, as well as somewhere between a fifth and a third of all Americans, do not believe there will be a 22nd century at all—because Jesus will have arrived by then. When Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, the late James G. Watt, was asked in a Congressional hearing if he planned to defend lands for future generations, he famously replied, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”10 Tens of millions of Americans would answer the same way. But what of the rest of us who are also stressed out over the apocalypse (but, you know, the real type)? Well, if you won’t deny reality, you can deny guilt.

Now, everyone touts neutrality; call it a Purity Industrial Complex. Delta Airlines claims to already be carbon neutral, a truly bold lie. Greenwashing pioneer British Petroleum claims it has a path to carbon neutrality. My toddler’s milk advertises itself as “carbon positive.” There’s a cottage industry of putatively carbon-neutral luxury travel; you can pay with credit cards that claim to plant a tree for every purchase. Nearly all of these schemes rely on carbon accounting tricks or scams, over-promising what trees can do. You know trees breath in carbon dioxide, so great—somebody must have worked out the numbers, right? Astrology for carbon cycles. Everything will be fine.

Can We Not Just Plant Trees or Drive Teslas?

Every summer, wildfires rip through countless acres of corporate forest offsets. Companies depending on tree schemes for their claims to “carbon neutrality” didn’t alert customers that, in fact, they were not neutral this year, even by their own tortured accounting. The grifts notwithstanding, afforestation is indeed an important tool in emissions reduction—but a deeply limited one. A mature tree absorbs 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. An average American lifestyle annually emits 14.5 metric tons of CO₂. Were I to scrub those emissions with trees, I would need to plant about 660 trees today, and would have to ensure they were not cut down anytime this century. 

Airlines now offer a carbon-offset surcharge with your ticket, even though every single passenger is responsible for as much CO₂ per hour of flight as a dozen trees would consume in a year. A recent study found that we could theoretically boost forests by an additional billion hectares and sequester 205 metric gigatons of carbon,11 which would reduce carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere by 50 parts per million. Planting every possible tree resets levels back to roughly around the time that the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Another option is purchasing electric vehicles. After all, electrification is a most important path to emissions reduction, and electric vehicles produce lower emissions—over their lifetime. That caveat is crucial; their manufacture produces high emissions up front. Tesla recently turned profitable by selling emissions credits ($1.6 billion in its first profitable year). The company sold these credits through several different carbon trading schemes using multiple strategies of creative accounting, but their overall aim was to put a nominal price on carbon.

Carbon trading schemes can be voluntary, as when a company wishes to offset carbon so it can advertise itself as green, or involuntary, wherein regulations limit emissions. Regulators auction or freely distribute allocations of emissions permits. If Company A is over budget on emissions and Company B is under, Company A can buy credits from Company B to comply with regulation. Ideally, the cap on emissions in a regulated zone would lower over time in these so-called cap-and-trade schemes. Some regulators incentivize automakers to produce zero-emissions vehicles by distributing credits, which they can then sell to high emitters.

Tesla sells credits that they are given but do not need, thereby generating emissions permits for other companies. Because prices fluctuate and different schemes utilize different accounting mechanisms, my numbers are only a ballpark figure.12 But to approximate, using the benchmark EU Emissions Trading System’s carbon price, Tesla could have permitted as much as 64 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in one year. This means that each of the half-million Teslas sold may have elsewhere facilitated 28 years of petroleum-fueled vehicle emissions.13 Even though we have strong evidence that electric vehicles do produce lower emissions over their lifetime, this accounting trick dampens the impact and collapses the context. You don’t buy a Tesla to lower total emissions. You buy it to lower your emissions.

Can We Not Scrub the Air?

Perhaps we should instead pull carbon dioxide from the air. There are three broad decarbonization pathways: improving efficiency, electrifying everything we can, and deploying carbon capture for the rest. Low-warming IPCC scenarios rely heavily on carbon capture technologies, which are currently in proof-of-concept or early experimental phases. Indeed, it’s troubling when leaders like U.S. climate envoy John Kerry identify the problem as “beyond catastrophic,” but also insist that “no government is going to solve this problem” because “the solution is going to come from the private sector” and will depend on “technologies that we don’t yet have.”

Direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) removes carbon dioxide from the air using chemical absorption or mineralization. Ideally, the resulting product is stored as stone underground. The Swiss company Climeworks is a global leader in DACCS. On September 8th, 2021, the Climeworks Orca plant switched on in Iceland. The largest direct air capture plant in the world, it boosted global carbon capture capacity by 50% overnight. Over the course of a year, Orca could capture 4,000 metric tons of emissions—equivalent to just 870 cars. “If it works,” said climate scientist Peter Kalmus, “in one year it will capture three seconds worth of humanity’s CO2 emissions… at incredible expense. I’m rooting for it, but only a fool would bet the planet on it.”

Climatologist David Ho popularized the notion of carbon dioxide removal as a time machine. Take total annual emissions, divide by the uptake of one carbon capture machine, and the result is how far back the machine takes us. For example, each of the four massive direct-air capture plants that will be built in the U.S. (thanks to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act) will cut thirteen minutes of carbon dioxide per year. “But in the time it took to remove those 13 minutes of CO₂,” Ho explained, “the world would have spewed another full year of CO2 into the atmosphere.”14

Though it’s exorbitantly expensive now, insiders think the price of carbon capture will drop to $100 per metric ton by 2050. But money isn’t the only cost. If Orca were to scrub the emissions of an average household, it would take more than double the total electricity that the household used. Fine. Nobody thinks we’ll use direct air capture to clean up all our emissions (except many policymakers and fossil fuel companies). But say we hallucinated a future of total capture. How much would it cost?

In the IPCC’s moderate emissions scenario, assuming we can clean up all emissions at $100 per metric ton, we’d need to pay $5 trillion per year, or $389 trillion by 2100. In the high emissions scenario, the bill comes to $1.22 quadrillion, or $16 trillion per year.15

These are absurd numbers. The costs are so astronomically unthinkable that many environmentalists’ blood boils at the mere mention of carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture experts or climatologists who think that DACCS will play a role (and I count myself among those who want to see billions, preferably trillions, dumped into this technology) will tell you that at best, it is only one option in the bucket of mitigation strategies.

It is difficult to imagine the lords paying for what they’ve done. And yet, because of nascent technology and woefully unfit policy, it’s so easy to comprehend that what might constitute critical, legitimate solutions in the future could produce little more than fraud and excuses today.

The Changes and the Dithering

The years ahead will be filled with moralistic pseudo-scientists promising forgiveness for what you’ve done. It is not true that, as we so often hear, “every little bit helps.” Much of the greenwash industry makes things worse—and worse is monetizable. We have a responsibility to learn so that we do not conjure new denial in the guise of salvation. Nothing is fine.

Over the last decade, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has used two terms in his climate-themed novels: “the Changes” and “the Dithering.” The former, a common term in “cli-fi,” refers not only to environmental change and catastrophe but also to the possibilities of social transformation opened up by economic disruptions, social upheaval, political revolutions, energy transitions, famines, and other chaotic ramifications.

The Dithering, meanwhile, describes the tone of the long 21st century, when policymakers do little to stop what’s about to happen, and profit-seeking corporations actively muddy the waters, sabotaging all intervention in service of prolonging our catatonia. As the emergency unfolds, “we” (with all the many incentives and contradictory interests summated in that little pronoun) are witnessing the Dithering, maddeningly, persist, while the Changes inflicted become each day more undeniable. To proceed in this twinned state is to live in near-delusion. ♦

Tad DeLay, PhD is the author of several books on psychoanalysis, religion, and politics. His forthcoming book Future of Denial: The Ideologies of Climate Change (Verso, 2024) argues fading climate denial is converting into dangerous grifts, moralizing, and violence. He teaches philosophy in Baltimore. He can be found on twitter at @taddelay.

All endnotes from this essay are available here as a .pdf

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