john oliver

John Oliver: Giggles and a Big Fail

John Oliver’s recent broadside against carbon offsets last month got lots of laughs.  But Oliver and his team cherry-picked the data for the giggles.

It was also a Big Fail. The piece ignored the important potential of offsets for those most challenged by climate change: at-risk local and indigenous communities.

Failure of Standards, and Solutions

Oliver pointed out the many shortcomings of the voluntary carbon credit registries to track all of the projects listed on their platforms and ensure that the auditors are doing a consistent, high-quality job.

In the early days of any large-scale venture, like voluntary carbon markets , that is trying to solve a complex environmental issue, there will inevitably be projects that fail legitimacy tests upon closer scrutiny. Fraud, a quick buck, and greenwashing efforts are often the first ones in the door. There are now many efforts underway to improve the voluntary carbon market.

As a former President of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the USA, I saw the same patterns for the FSC in its early days (late 90’s to early 00’s).  To correct it, we insisted on a three-part approach:

1) Rigorous standards with a matching document that lays out in plain English the intent  of the standard;

2) A fair, timely, and transparent way for disputed certifications to be registered by third-parties and solved by experts without a conflict of interest;

3) An audit of the auditors to ensure that they are not ‘gaming the system’ to win market share and that their assessments are consistently high quality.

The entire carbon offset field could benefit from a close examination of those three issues and ensuring that they are met. Verra, the world’s largest carbon credit registry, penned a very thorough rebuttal of the many technical issues that the Oliver piece ignored or glossed over. Oliver’s team didn’t even bother to reach out to Verra.

While we and many others are working on solving the issues that Oliver pointed out, let’s mention the Big Fail.

At-Risk Communities Ignored. Completely.

John OliverNowhere in his piece did Oliver ever mention those most affected by climate change: at-risk, including local and indigenous, communities.  These communities suffer the most from climate change yet they are the least responsible for the predicament they find themselves in.

Indigenous peoples, for example, counting as only 5% of the world’s population, own or manage up to 25% of land globally, in which most of the earth’s remaining biodiversity – an estimated 80% – thrives. Yet there is very little support of indigenous-led conservation still to this day.

Nature-based Solutions (NbS), often funded through carbon credits, are assisting these communities address the climate crisis. Numerous studies, most notably by Bronson Griscom et al., have estimated that up to 37% of the carbon we need to sequester could be removed through such NbS solutions: forest protection (viz. avoid cutting down trees that are truly threatened), improved landscape management (e.g. regenerative agriculture), and restoration (e.g. plant trees).

Working with these communities, funding their NbS initiatives, and replicating these projects across the planet is what Nature For Justice is working toward.  And ensuring that the communities get their fair share of any carbon credits. This is what we call the Big Impact.

What these local, at-risk communities around the world need are recognition, support, and respect. Ignoring them only makes their situation more precarious. A Big Fail.


  • Hank Cauley

    An engineer who later got a business degree to achieve social and environmental justice through existing economic structures. He’s started or built many organizations and projects. Hank lives in Falls Church, VA, with his wife and is an avid bee-keeper.

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