Gear up your brains and flex those diatribe muscles, carbon offset nerds — the offset debate is coming to the Capitol, and you’re all invited to participate.

Institute of Ecosystem Studies Dr. William Schlesinger is going to be speaking at 6:00 pm this Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., about his recent work on the interaction between forests and climate — and its implications for how and whether carbon offsets should be allowed. I’m on the board of the American Lands Alliance, the organization sponsoring the event, and we’d like to get some hot questions to fire at Schlesinger — which is where Gristmill’s offset nerd legions come in. If you’re an outside-the-Beltway climate nerd, feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. If you’re an inside the Beltway climate nerd, you should just come.

Schlesinger, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the top authorities on this topic — and he’s shown a rare willingness, for a scientist, to venture into the policy and political arena. In 2005, for instance, he endorsed a carbon tax, calling it “potentially the most effective means to improve our energy-use efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” He also serves on the board of TerraPass, a company that provides offsets to people and corporations that pollute.

American Lands invited Schlesinger because we’re very concerned about the impact a massive expansion in biofuels production could have on wildlands, in national forests and elsewhere. If we’re cutting down ancient forests to grow woody biomass tree farms, it will be neither climate nor ecosystem friendly. But we’re also intrigued by the possibility of allowing polluters to get carbon credits for protecting intact ancient forests. Conceivably, it could radically alter the financial incentives in national forests and elsewhere so that timber companies and others could make more money by helping restore forests than logging them. But, if not carefully managed, there’s also potential for abuse. Such a system is largely dependent on having a robust cap-and-trade or cap-and-auction system in place as well; if we adopt a carbon tax, does that mean that forests and other native ecosystems won’t benefit from the massive investments in tackling the climate crisis?

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I’m also curious about what he has to say about the climate value of protecting temperate and boreal forests in the first place. Tropical forests generally absorb far greater amounts of carbon dioxide than U.S. or Canadian forests; they also generally support more biodiversity. From an economic perspective, it’s also cheaper to protect tropical forests: land and labor are both cheaper in most tropical countries, suggesting individuals, companies, and governments can get more eco-bang for their buck by saving tropical forests than conserving ones in our own backyard.

Finally, I want to know what Schlesinger thinks of the recent Lawrence Livermore study that suggested boreal and some temperate forests may actually contribute to global warming by preventing sunlight from reflecting off the snow beneath them and back out into space. Is this for real or is it a junk science gift to the timber industry?

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If you’re an outside-the-Beltway carbon offset nerd and want to participate, leave your questions for Schlesinger in the comments section; I’ll make sure he gets them. If you’re in D.C., you should come and throw in your two cents. This event is, in part, a fundraiser, but there’s no minimum contribution, so both penniless and stingy offset nerds are welcome. It’s on Thursday, September 20 at 255 11th Street SE (close to the Eastern Market metro stop) at 6:00 pm. If you’re coming, shoot me an email at glenn dot hurowitz /at ecologyfund dot net.