The Christian Science Monitor's Eoin O'Carrol is reporting that Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame is offering a cool $25 million to anyone who "can come up with a way to scrub at least 1 billion tons of CO2 a year from Earth's atmosphere." The aim would be to help slow or even arrest global warming, caused by the 25 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere annually by the burning of fossil fuels.
While some criticism of this plan has focused on Mr. Branson's apparent hypocrisy, noting, among other things, that he owns a commercial airline that consumes colossal amounts of fossil fuels and also promotes private, commercial space-travel. Good points, but perhaps a better criticism would focus on the merits and demerits of the project itself, rather than on any apparent hypocrisy on the part of the brain and money behind it.
I don't see any actual hypocrisy on the part of someone who realizes that their economic interests depend not only on the consumption of fossil fuels, but also on the ability of the Earth to survive said consumption more or less intact. After all, an ecological disaster that rendered large parts of the planet uninhabitable would be very bad indeed for business.
I also see no necessary hypocrisy on the part of ecological advocates - such as Al Gore, Jim Hansen, James Lovelock and the like - who participate in a project created by a man whose fortune has been built in part on the back of the ecosystem. If we really care about our habitat we have to build alliances with anyone willing to do any work to help preserve it; even alliances with big business.
The only problems I have are these:
1.) The goal isn't big enough. Even if we can somehow find a way to scrub 1 million tons of CO2 from the air each and every year, that still leaves us with a gap of 24 million tons and climbing each year, relative to the amount of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels annually.
2.) I am somewhat suspicious of any plan to help preserve the natural environment by acting upon it. That is, we create a great deal of harm to the environment by treating it as an object to be acted upon, manipulated, interfered with. Of course, we are also able to accomplish some goods through this. But we should still be suspicious of any plan to undo the damage we've done by acting upon the environment, as there may be untold future damage done by each new action.
That isn't to say that we shouldn't do anything - it is instead to say that the many somethings we should do involve limiting the ways in which we act upon the environment, rather than adding to them.
That said, I hope this plan works. It is limited, and possibly even shortsighted, but it is something.
And now I've got to go to my second round of classes.
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