Doug Struck Wins April Sidney for Story on Carbon Offsets Fraud
NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Doug Struck has won the April Sidney award for a six-part series in The Christian Science Monitor exposing the fraud surrounding the growing market for carbon offsets. Struck reveals that because of exaggerated claims, poorly run projects, and deceptive practices, carbon offsets have a negligible role in the fight against global warming.
The series was a joint project of The Monitor and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Sidney Award judge Charles Kaiser said, “the theme of the series is that ‘voluntary carbon offsets are a ‘Wild West’ market ripe for fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects that probably do little to ease global warming.’ Struck provides many striking examples of misrepresentation and fraud, ranging from a phantom forest in Hungary, which was supposed to make the Vatican carbon-neutral but never got planted, to an Israeli charity selling offsets that are supposed to create brand-new projects, but are actually for tree plantings the charity has been doing for 60 years.”
Struck writes, “Carbon offsets are the environmental equivalent of financial derivatives: complex, unregulated, unchecked and – in many cases – not worth their price… Often, those who get the ‘green credits’ thinking their own carbon emissions have been offset, are fooled.”
Struck is a veteran reporter, who has been a national and a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He has run news bureaus in the Middle East, Asia, and Canada, and he has covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, the Philippines and Sudan. His global-warming reporting has taken him around the globe, with visits to the Arctic, the Northwest Passage, Greenland, the Andes in Peru, and the Boreal Forest. He has been a Nieman fellow at Harvard and a fellow in Asian studies at George Washington University. He has bachelor of science degree in business administration from Pennsylvania State University.
Since 2008, Struck has written about environmental and science issues for public, non-profit, educational and for-profit clients. He is also the associate chairman and journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston.
The six-part project was written by Struck with contributions from reporters Ben Arnoldy in India, Sara Miller Llana in Panama, Ilene R. Prusher in Israel, Kathy Marks in Australia, and Katy Jordan and Tyler Maltbie in Boston. The project was financed in part by The Deer Creek Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Assistance in video production was provided by students at Emerson College and Boston University.
Doug Struck discusses his Sidney winning investigation into carbon offsets fraud and new models for investigative journalism.
1.Why did you decide to look into carbon offsets fraud?
Several years ago, while I was reporting for The Washington Post, I went to a conference at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The scientists there were in a tizzy over a scheme by a California company to fertilize the ocean with iron, estimate the carbon sucked up by the blooming algae, and sell that carbon as an “offset.” I did not write about it then, but as I kept hearing about offsets offered to counterbalance one’s “carbon footprint,” I wondered whether other offset projects were as far-fetched and controversial as that idea. After I leftThe Post, I happened to mention my musings to Joe Bergantino at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, and he seized on it. “Great story,” he said, “Now go find some funding to do it.”
That was the start of a real experiment in “new models” of journalism. We eventually got financing from a philanthropical foundation, the Deer Creek Foundation, for reporting by the non-profit new England Center for Investigative Reporting. We approached and teamed up with the Christian Science Monitor, one of a dwindling number of news organizations that still have a highly respected foreign staff. The Monitor, which has moved on-line daily but has a weekly print magazine, was commendably open to the idea. Editor John Yemma was willing to work with our non-profit, and we further involved both my students at Emerson College and students at Boston University. So the “model” was foundation-nonprofit-mainstream media-academic, and the resulting story was in print, video, on-line and even radio. It was a hybrid that worked, but involved hundreds of emails among the parties. It undoubtedly could have been done more efficiently by a sole news organization, but they are not doing projects like this as they did before newsrooms were hit with layoffs.
2. What surprised you as you did your research?
I got into the story thinking the theory of voluntary carbon offsets was good, but expecting to find a few bad apples. As we got further into the research, I was surprised to find the theoretical underpinnings of these offsets are as slithery and elusive as financial derivatives. That has lured a wide cast of financial prospectors seeking gold in the wallets of consumers. There are, undoubtedly, some well-intentioned players in the offset market. But I came out of the research skeptical that very many of these offsets really do what buyers think they do. Most don’t immediately counterbalance one’s carbon footprint by creating a new reduction in greenhouse gases. Too often, buyers are paying for offsets that won’t happen, won’t happen for years, or already has happened for some other purpose.
3. What has the response been since you published it?
With the widely dispersed audience of our digital age, it’s unclear. I do know the package has been trumpeted by some who deny climate change or man’s contribution to it. If their reasoning is that the flaws in voluntary offsets are argument that we should do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases, I find that wrongheaded and unfortunate.
4. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?
Climate change legislation before Congress could create a cap-and-trade for even more offsets, although ones subject to much more regulation and scrutiny. I would be curious to see if that has passed, has been implemented, and is working with a lot more legitimacy than voluntary offsets.
The Christian Science Monitor