I can claim no credit for the idea put forward in this posting. It was a pespective highlighted to me by a man who knows a great deal about politics and economics in the UK and the world and it seemed to be so true that I had to mention it here, in the hope that I can help spread the idea a little further. As you will see, it also fits in with some of the discussion I have been having on this site around the Crusades. What this man did was liken paying for carbon offsetting with papal indulgences of the Middle Ages.
First the background of these two elements. Carbon offsetting has been in the newspapers and television reports a great deal and involves people and companies analysing how much carbon dioxide (and note it is the gas carbon dioxide it just gets reduced to this in popular usage and people do not actually mean carbon which is usually a solid element at room temperature and is most obvious in things like coal, but is also the basis of diamonds and is a component of life on Earth, which is why chemistry featuring carbon is called 'organic chemistry') they produce and then paying a company like Carbon Neutral Company or Climate Care to carry out activities which globally reduce carbon dioxide emissions and so hopefully reduce global warming. It is reckoned that every individual would have to spend £75 (€107; US$149 - the pound has dropped against both currencies this week) per year to reverse the amount of carbon dioxide they produce through using electrical items, travelling by car, aeroplane, ship and so on.
The second element are Papal Indulgences. These were introduced in the 11th century by the Catholic Church at the time that the Crusading movement was becoming established. Before the introduction of indulgences the way to get to Heaven was to be baptised, confess your sins, believe in God and Jesus Christ in line with the doctrines of the Church and live a life in which you carried out good works. The concept of Purgatory gained ground between the 4th-6th centuries. It was a kind of intermediary place where people went who were not so evil that they would be sent straight to Hell, but not so good that they went straight to Heaven, i.e. the bulk of the population. Their soul might spend thousands of years after their death being purified of the sins they had committed on Earth before eventually they got into Heaven. Now, if they got their descendants or hired someone like a chuch or monastery to say prayers for them after their death then it shortened the time they had to spend in Purgatory. Increasingly from the 11th century onwards, however, you could also buy an indulgence from a church representative (such as the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales') which eliminated a certain amount of sin from your life, say five years' worth, so that when you came to Purgatory you would not have to spend so long there. Very expensive indulgences could wipe away all the sin in your life as could going on a Crusade (well by the time of the late Crusades by which time it was getting harder to raise volunteers and the rewards had to be greater, a kind of 'indulgence inflation' happened).
Indulgences brought in a good deal of money for the Catholic Church, but were attacked by reformers, not only because people like the pardoners became rich off the back of this business but on theological grounds as well. Given that Jesus said that it was very hard for a rich man to get into Heaven, how had it now become the case that the wealthy could pay to have all their sins expunged when a poor person had to put up with going through Purgatory? Things came to a head in 1517 when Pope Leo X had a large marketing campaign of indulgences to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica. Protest against this was one of the key elements of the attacks by the monk Martin Luther on corruption in the Catholic Church and indulgences were the focus of the 28th of his 95 Theses. Luther thought that only God could grant redemption, not anyone on Earth, even the Pope and certainly not for financail return. Luther's actions were the start of the so-called Reformation which led to the formation of the Protestant Churches in the following decades.
One of the concerns about indulgences were that effectively as long as you had the cash you could be as sinful as you liked and then pay for those sins to be wiped clean. It did not matter to you that your actions in being sinful, for example murdering someone or committing adultery or being a glutton, actually hurt other people. This is the parallel my friend was making to carbon offsetting. The people who are most likely to pay to have their 'carbon footprint' offset are actually those people, like celebrities with their big cars and private aeroplanes, who are contributing the most the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. So they buy some offsetting and do not actually have to worry about their behaviour and feel they have a clear conscience. Of course it is the whole world who has to put up with the consequences of their actions and they do not repay those who they indirectly harm, such as people on islands losing their water table and their land because of rising sea levels.
Maybe we will see a 'carbon' Martin Luther nailing his protests to the door of some carbon offsetting company and arguing instead that we all need to reform our behaviour rather than some of us feeling we can opt out of any modification of how we behave simply because we can pay someone else to take the burden.