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Outside the Box: Payments or principles?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Every day people decide whether to adhere to or stray from their principles, or whether to commit to or hedge on their ideas. Unfortunately, money often forces people to compromise on both. This week’s Outside the Box features one man’s five billion dollar principle and researchers’ billion dollar ideas to combat climate change.

Passing on billionsinthemoney.png Jeffrey Lee values the land of his ancestors more than the billions of dollars he would gain from selling it to the French energy company Areva. The company estimates the Australian land to contain more than 5 billion dollars worth of uranium deposits. Lee is the only surviving member of the Djok clan, and solely responsible for the fate of the tribal lands containing a vast fortune in addition to sacred holy sites and burial grounds.

Instead of selling the land, Lee is advocating for its addition to the adjacent Kakadu National Park in order for its permanent protection from environmentally unfriendly mines. His inspiring stance illustrates how some things, like our environment, are not for sale or compromise. Jeffrey Lee is leaving a different kind of legacy and inheritance for future generations, perhaps one worth every penny of that five billion.

Thinking outside the budget splode.png Global warming presents a very real problem facing contemporary society. However, for such a universal concern, global warming doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves other than the ‘gloom and doom’ story in the newspaper every other week. The New York Times ran a great story highlighting actual proposed solutions to climate change, which haven’t gotten the chance they deserve due to a perennial lack of funding.

Some ideas include:

  • Carbon sequestration, which would involve creating ‘carbon landfills’ by pumping carbon dioxide into the Earth. The technology and science are practical, but questions of scale and whether or not the gas would stay contained would require scientific funding estimated at 1 billion dollars.
  • Collecting solar power in space and beaming the energy down to a receiver station on Earth using satellite lasers. This is significantly less practical since it is estimated to cost 5 billion to build a facility that could power a small city, but with more research and development the amount could decrease significantly.
  • Creating a solar sunshade to deflect a small percentage of sunlight from the Earth. This idea seems to be way outside the box and is estimated to cost trillions.
  • Geoengineering, which involves shooting particles into the atmosphere causing sunlight to be reflected back into space. It seems odd that shooting particles back into the atmosphere would reduce global warming, but the same principle occurs in nature when a volcano erupts and surrounding regions experience cooler temperatures.

Some of these ideas are never going to be cost effective or practical solutions to global warming, but the only way to find a tenable solution is by funding research and development. The private sector is not going to develop the solution because of the potential for failure, long-term nature, and uncertain payoff that prevent investment.

The government needs to fill the void and seriously commit research and development funding to ideas large in scope and budget demands. Developing cleaner coal, a project currently being funded by the government, is one thing. But big problems require big solutions. Thinking outside the box is always risky, but once in a while it pays off big.