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Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active

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What Elections Tell Us About Greenwash and How To Prevent It

greenwash carbon drawdown carbon accounting offsetting morality elections carbon auditing

Bogus election results and ‘carbon neutral’ badges are respectable facades contrived to conceal hidden shames – be good, and we can bin the fig leaves.

Q: What links the 2022 World Cup and the 2022 Equatorial Guinea presidential election? 

A: Fig leaves, money, power, control and ensuring the ‘right’ answer 

The interesting thing about elections

Consider this list of election results:

  • Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan, 1992: 99.4%
  • Saddam Hussein, Iraq, 2002: 100%
  • Bashar al-Assad, Syria, 2007: 97.6%
  • Raul Castro, Cuba, 2008: 99.4%
  • Kim Jong-Il, North Korea 2009: 99.9% 
  • Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan, 2012: 97%
  • Kim Jong-Un, North Korea, 2014: 100%
  • Paul Kagame, Rwanda, 2017: 98,79%
  • Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea,2022: 97%*

*at one point official turnout hit 100.17%, before election officials corrected this particular ‘error’.

Note that all these remarkable election victories favoured incumbents, or successors of similarly-dominant incumbents. Interesting, but for our purposes not as interesting as the question this article addresses:

Why did they bother to have elections at all?

From a realpolitik perspective, the poll victors listed above are the successors of other historical ‘strong men’: Alexander the Great, Chingghis Khan, Napoleon, Montezuma and Xerxes. These old-school rulers never held elections, yet once elections were invented, their modern emulators felt they had to put on a bit of a show.

Other old-school means of asserting authority to the ruled remain in fashion: parades, wars, pogroms, palaces, mass events etc. are as popular as ever. So why add this new bit of theatre? What impels modern dictators to stage-manage  elections to validate their de facto power?

Why the need for the fig leaf of a 97%+ vote?

Good, Evil & Shame

For the answer, we refer you to the Christian origin story of the fig leaf industry, the Garden of Eden: shame.

Dictators crave the appearance of legitimacy conferred by a genuine election victory, but don’t want to risk exposure to the elements. Their compromise solution – the fig leaf of rigged elections. 

Obiang, Saddam, the Castros and the Kims are not obliged to bother with elections. They could divert their elections budget to military parades and palaces. But they don’t.

They could simply announce results without the hassle of going through the motions of a free vote. But they don’t.

Giving international observers something to observe allows them to kinda look legit if you don’t look too hard, while still controlling their most vulnerable and sensitive parts. That’s what fig leaves are for.

The basis of this urge to appear virtuous can be found in Chapter 1 of the Big Book of Big Bosses, Lesson 101 on the How To Be Top course, and is the golden thread of Gaslighting for Dummies – control

Control the narrative, control the process, control the press, control the army, control the banks, control industry, and you ticked most of the boxes for remaining president for life. Fig leaves are for the trickiest thing to control, what goes on inside the heads of the ruled. 

Hearts & Minds vs. Money & Guns

For any aspiring hegemon, what the rest of us really think about them is the wild card. You think you control it, but by the time you realise you haven’t you’re living in exile with only your offshore billions to comfort you if you’re lucky, or dangling from a lamp post if you’re not.

If you wanna rule, you gotta win Hearts & Minds

Surveillance tech and social media have enhanced the means of influencing what people really think, and guessing what people really think, but for the time being still can’t actually control our inner thoughts. The dictator’s basic tool kit remains Guns and Money. Money alone can do the trick, but is best underwritten by Guns. Belt and braces.

G&M worked pretty well on their own until modern notions of universal suffrage elections became universally recognised as the gold standard for legitimacy. There’s debate about exactly who pioneered this encumbrance to dictatorship:

  • Greece can claim they invented the notion that power resides in people, rather than a person, in Athens in the 6th century BC
  • The UK’s self-proclaimed ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ points to Magna Carta in 1215, or its series of 19th century electoral Reform Acts which prised power from the barons and redistributed it to the masses. 
  • New Zealand cites itself at the first to give women the vote in 1893

Whatever its origins, sham elections are now an essential addition to the dictators tool kit. Hence the brand extension for Big Fig.

Carbon’s Big Fig Origin Story

The moment when the commercial equivalent of presidents, multinationals, turned to Big Fig can be traced back with more precision.

In 1982, real-estate and insurance magnate John MacArthur set up an NGO he called the World Resources Institute (WRI), as a science- and evidence-based institution that would carry out rigorous policy research of global environmental and development issues.

One of their early clients was energy firm Applied Energy Service. They sought ideas on how they could mitigate the environmental impact of their US coal-fired plant, which they were beginning to feel a bit ashamed of. The WRI could have suggested switching to renewables, or abandoning the energy business and getting into forestry, or even switching to natural gas. 

Instead they came up with the kind of solution that might occur to people accustomed to spending most of their day examining spreadsheets.

Why not ‘offset’ the emissions of your US coal plant by planting trees and slowing deforestation in Guatemala?

This idea sounded innovative, elegant and attractive at the time, as it was dressed up in the language of economic theory, market forces, supply and demand, and marginal gains. It marked the world’s first land-based ‘carbon credit’, but in essence this fig leaf is as old as human history. 

Doing deals with God

It was a transaction, a deal. Early humans sacrificed humans, then animals, to appease the Gods.

After the invention of money 5,000 years ago, this kind of barter deal was quickly mediated by cash.

Mediaeval popes had a comprehensive tariff of ‘indulgences’, permitting rich sinners to buy redemption, and time-shift virtue until after they’d died, providing a mechanism to keep on sinnin’ until they shuffled off this mortal coil.

Paying distant, poor, brown people to plant trees so that you could continue business as usual with a clean conscience is just a modern, secular version of a very old human desire.

The interesting thing about ‘Carbon Neutral’ badges

Harsh? Consider the following list of companies that have at some point claimed to have been ‘carbon neutral’, but recently had their papal indulgences revoked:

It’s not quite accurate to say these fig leaves were ‘revoked’. That still implies a single agent of revocation, like a Pope cancelling indulgences issued by his predecessor, or changing the tariff. Modern communications, and ‘the will of the people’ replacing ‘the mandate of heaven’ as the basis of political legitimacy have made it much more complicated.

We’ll address what forced these huge, dominant, influential, rich, powerful brands to eat humble pie at the end of this article, as this is the point of most practical interest.

But in case you’re yet to be convinced that carbon offsets really are a modern fig leaf franchise, you may need more evidence.

There’s no shortage. Like our first list of overwhelming election victories, our list of retracting multinationals barely scratches the surface. Both illustrate a trend. 

If you think their ‘carbon neutral’ claims may have been legitimate, you can read the details in the links above or search the See Through News website for ‘greenwash’. If having read them, you still reckon they had a point, you should consider a career with the Equatorial Guinea electoral commission.

The point we’re making here is the connection between the two lists of examples of rigged elections and corporate greenwash.

Carbon neutral claims are to business what 97%+ victory margins are to dictators. Performative badges, denoting unearned virtue, bought at little expense, to win hearts and minds. Virtue-signalling, minus the virtue.

Greenwash, sportswash and pollwash all require putting on a show…so long as you know how the show ends.

Just make sure you know the result

We hope the answer to the riddle posed at the top of this article is now becoming clearer. The one-word answer to what links the 2022 World Cup and Equatorial Guinea elections is ‘shame’. Here’s a more nuanced answer:

  • Shame: In both cases, 21st-century science, politics and society have created a universally-accepted understanding that elections and carbon neutrality are Good, and therefore merit praise, and dictatorships and carbon profligacy are Evil, and deserve opprobrium.
  • Shamefulness: Both the Qatari organising committee and President Obiang know shame. They’ve taken a big enough bite of the Apple of Knowledge to distinguish good from evil. The former aspire to decarbonisation virtue; the latter, electoral legitimacy. 
  • Shamelessness: Rather than ‘do the right thing’, both the Qatari organising committee and President Obiang covered their shame with a fig leaf. For the former this was a ‘carbon neutral’ green badge; for the latter, a landslide victory calculated to appear credible to international observers without encouraging their rivals.

Lawyers never ask questions in court to which they don’t know the answer. Qatar and Obiang, and all the other greenwashers and hegemons go one step further. Their ‘insurance policy’ is based on the principle of only asking a question when you can determine the answer.

Qatar didn’t risk using one of the hundreds of available commercial carbon accounting standards to assess their carbon footprint. Maybe they tried, and couldn’t find one prepared to permanently blow their credibility, even for a lavish one-off fee. Even the most venal carbon auditor might baulk at awarding a ‘carbon neutral’ rating to an event that built 10 air-conditioned concrete stadiums in the Middle East to entertain 3.4 million fans flying in from around the planet.

Maybe that’s why the carbon auditing company that awarded their green badge was 100% owned by the Qatari government. Setting up a stooge is a small price to pay, if the greenwash works. It’s just a cost of doing business, to be ‘offset’ against the advantages of unchallenged power.

Likewise, Obiang paid a political and financial price to ensure that Equatorial Guinea’s Electoral  Commission rubber stamped his 97% victory. Value for money, when ‘offset’ against the legitimacy an election result confers in international relations.

Even if the US State Department issues a press release expressing ‘serious doubts about the legitimacy’ of the elections, there were no real-world consequences for President Obiang, incumbent since 1979, of an oil-rich state that ranks 171st out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index.

This index is evidence that pollwashing is still working for dictators, for the moment. How about greenwashing for big businesses?

The root of all carbon evil

To continue dipping into the Bible for our references, Timothy’s famous observation on the root of all evil is often truncated, to its detriment. It’s not money, but the love of money.

By the time Timothy made this observation, two thousand years ago, money had been around for around three thousand years. For him, the Good to which money was providing an Evil alternative was religious piety, not measurable carbon reduction, but he’d certainly nailed the competition.

Replace eternal paradise with the more easily measurable metric of parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent, and Timothy’s point stands.

So what lessons can we learn from all this about replacing greenwash with effective carbon reduction?

Greenwashing matters more than democracy – much more

Timing is everything, but we don’t have much time. Things work fine until they don’t.

Look again at our two lists of dictators and multinationals, and consider how successful, by their own metrics, Big Fig was for them.

For Saddam and many other victors of overwhelming ‘election’ endorsements we didn’t list, like Romania’s Nicolai Ceaușescu, their rules ended with the Lamp Post option. Today’s aspiring dictators might wonder why they bothered with elections. Uganda’s Idi Amin didn’t, and his unabashed dictatorship ended up with the Exile option in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, our list provides many case studies that support pollwashing: the Castro brothers’ nominated successor is running Cuba, the Kims have kept power in the family for three generations, and are lining up a fourth.

Like we say, timing is everything. ‘So far so good’, as the optimist falling from a skyscraper shouted to observers through the second floor windows.

The jury is still out for the political branch of Big Fig, but that’s not the biggest crisis our species now faces.

Human civilisation carried on just fine for millennia while neither holding elections nor changing our climate. It was the Industrial Revolution, not any Agrarian, Cultural or French one that did that.

Whether we’re democracies or autocracies doesn’t determine how much fossil fuel we burn. Here are the top 10 global carbon emitters – spot the correlation with electoral legitimacy.

Even if there were any correlation between elections and carbon emissions, it wouldn’t matter, as the greenhouse effect doesn’t respect national boundaries. Talk to the electoral commission, ‘cos the CO2 molecule don’t care.

The state of the planetary atmosphere that regulates our climate presents a far greater challenge to our species than the ruling systems of individual countries. It’s a matter of physics, not morality.

The greenhouse effect happens whoever is in charge, and will continue to determine global temperatures for centuries to come, whoever rules whatever is left of human civilisation.

News coverage of the COP summits tends to focus on the inter-tribal blame game, setting rich countries against poor, democracies against autocracies, petro-states against the rest. This bickering permits the proximate cause of global heating, the 100 or so fossil fuel companies that generate 70% of global emissions, to keep pumping out CO2. Big Oil doesn’t care about political systems – just look at the list of top national emitters.

  • Sort countries by CO2 emissions, and there’s no correlation between environmental virtue and electoral virtue
  • Sort companies by revenue, and there’s no correlation between degree of environmental evil and political evil

So what is the common denominator that makes sense of all this? Without the key to unlock this conundrum, any lessons Big Fig’s pollwash franchise can teach us about its Greenwash franchise will elude us.

Money, it’s a gaslight

Money, that’s the key.

Timothy nailed it, but he’s not the only one. Confucius observed ‘the superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell’. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The Qur’an teaches ‘Allah will deprive usury of all blessing, but will give increase for deeds of charity’, echoing Buddha’s warning that ‘If you cling to your wealth, it is better to throw it away than to let it poison your heart’. 

Yet despite all these warnings, all issued after the invention of money, in the ‘real world’ we continue to value money above carbon. We value something our species made up 5,000 years ago over something life on Earth has been made of for billions of years.

Half a century since scientists confirmed the hundred-year-old greenhouse effect theory was indeed happening, and with parts per million of CO2 still on their hockey-stick graph trajectory to global heating, we’re still making the same mistake.

We’, of course, is the problem. ‘We’ don’t have a great track record of acting in our species’ interest. Humans only tend to act in unison in the face of an existential threat in the movies. In the real world, to date, we prefer to hang on to our multiple tribal affiliations. Humans are both really clever, and really stupid that way.

Take the name we’ve given ourselves. In the 1758 10th edition of his famous taxonomy of the natural world, it occurred to Carl Linnaeus that ‘we’ should include ourselves, committing a triple act of anthropocentric arrogance:

  1. Linnaeus cited himself as the type specimen
  2. He was a sage of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ that was creating the Industrial Revolution that set us on our disastrous course
  3. He called us Homo sapiens, ‘wise man’

There seems to be no limit to the ways ‘wise man’ can subdivide ourselves in the face of planet-scale threat that renders all our previous preoccupations ‘nice problems to have’. These second-order issues, all of which presuppose the scaffolding of human civilisation, still dominate our headlines: race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, culture. 

You name it, humans can argue over it. Our latest tech, from social media to AI, looks smart, but merely amplifies our species’ remarkable ability to argue with our heads in the sand.

There’s nothing new about this observation – philosophers and sages from all cultures have observed this flaw throughout recorded history, but every new generation still likes to think of itself as uniquely enlightened and immune from the pitfalls of the past.

Except that this time, it really is different. Our capacity for abstract thinking has lead us to a point where our scientists can not only tell us the speed and trajectory of our self-harm and how it works, but also how to fix it.

Converting carbon evil to carbon good – the Hope Bit

Follow the carbon, and you soon follow the money.

That’s why, ever since the WRI issued the world’s first indulgence via a Guatemalan forest, Carbon Accounting 1.0 has failed.

In 2024, the carbon industry will surpass a trillion dollars, but the proponent of the carbon offsetting industry trumpeting this triumph are deaf to the irony of valuing something supposed to reduce carbon via the metric of dollars, rather than gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent reduced or sequestered (CO2e).

We can’t pretend to be taking carbon reduction seriously until we stop measuring progress via the corrupting proxy of money, and only accept the currency atmospheric physicists deal in, CO2e. This is the solution offered, so far uniquely, by See Through Carbon.

The ray of hope, faint though it may be, can be discerned in the question posed at the start of this article.

Greenwash wouldn’t exist without a sense of shame for it to cover up. There are still plenty of businesses paying for greenwash. From energy companies to fizzy drink makers and , music stars not addressing the elephant in the room at their concerts, businesses are going out of their way to claim unearned PR for trivial concessions, while ignoring or deflecting attention from inconvenient truths.

The companies we listed earlier all tried it on, but – here’s the Hope Bit – all were called out, and publicly shamed into recanting their environmental sins. All suffered some degree of reputational damage, which hit them to some degree in the pocket.

Smart businesses will avoid the risk. Smarter ones will try to get ahead of the game by measuring their carbon footprints accurately via independent, trusted third parties. They’ll demonstrate their good faith by making the results public without fixing the results in advance, even if they’re unflattering once you count all their liabilities and ignore any fabricated offset assets.

Brave, or foolhardy? Timing is everything, but the pressure to demonstrate authentic green credentials can only grow. Should big brands, institutions or countries, continue to eke out the benefits of greenwashing for a bit longer? Or should they be the first to take the leap of faith in the judgement of their customers, investors, employees, colleagues, children and grandchildren, and choose reality over spin?

It may even make them more money. Only one company in any sector can be the first adopter of Carbon Accounting 2.0, after all. Rather than honk bogus claims from sandbanks that are being greenwashed away by reality, they can trumpet their genuine claims from the solid moral high ground, shaming their rivals and challenging them to subject themselves to the same scrutiny, without being able to control the results through money.

For this to work, the carbon auditing standard must be incorruptible by money. Crowdfunding, like Wikipedia, is one option, but it carries its own risks and flaws.

See Through Carbon is banking on not having a bank account at all. Wish us luck.