Dear Mr. Branson:

On Feb. 9, 2007, you and Al Gore announced the Virgin Earth Challenge at a London press conference:

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25 million for whoever can demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.

It was announced that the panel of judges would consist of Richard Branson, Al Gore, Crispin Tickell, James Hansen, James Lovelock, and Tim Flannery.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’m sure that when you dreamed up the prize, you were probably thinking about how to motivate the proverbial garage inventor or moonlighting chemist to come up with a new planet-rescuing technology in the narrow sense of the term — perhaps some sort of chemical reagent, gene-tweaked algae, or super-absorbent biochar that could suck carbon dioxide molecules out of the atmosphere.

But it’s time to do some out-of-the-box thinking on climate change, starting with what sort of technological solutions we’re willing to take seriously. Let’s start with the idea of technology itself.

Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any:

A strict definition is elusive; "technology" can refer to material objects of use to humanity, such as machines, hardware or utensils, but can also encompass broader themes, including systems, methods of organization, and techniques.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Let me propose a technology that I take very seriously, even if people like Rudolph Giuliani don’t: grassroots community organizing.

The “community organizer” that Giuliani and Sarah Palin mocked at the Republican Convention in September is now about to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Indeed, even seasoned politicos admitted to being fairly dazzled by the ground game displayed by Obama in winning the election against far more experienced politicians.

That was community organizing on display. And yes, it really is a technology. In fact, in solving climate change, it may be the only technology that really matters.

Two years ago, at about the time you were announcing your Virgin Earth Challenge, a bureaucrat named Eric Schuster at the U.S. Department of Energy was releasing the latest of his “Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants” spreadsheets. The document showed 151 coal plants under development [PDF] across the country.

Any one of those coal plants, if built, would have emitted millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. According to one calculation, a 500 megawatt coal plant operating for half a century would cancel out the gains of getting 10 million drivers to switch from an SUV to a Prius.

At this point, 31 of the coal plants on Schuster’s list are either built or under construction. But, according to a listed published in November on the CoalSwarm wiki, 82 of the proposed plants from Schuster’s 151-plant list have now been canceled, abandoned, or placed on hold. And that’s not taking into account a bevy of additional proposals that are were subsequently thrown into legal uncertainty by an EPA appeals panel ruling in the Deseret Power case.

The dynamics of plant cancellations are complex, typically amounting to a combination of factors that may include rising construction costs, legal challenges, public and political opposition, and regulatory delays. Grassroots organizing employs a wide variety of techniques — from sit-ins to press releases to legal briefs — to bring all the stars into alignment. There’s a bit of alchemy involved, a bit of “fake it till you make it,” and lots of sheer scrambling. Each situation is unique. For an account of how one set of six plants came to be nixed, read “The education of Warren Buffett.”

Let’s look at the 82 canceled, abandoned, or sidetracked proposals. Collectively, they amount to 51,016 MW of generating capacity [PDF] that can now be replaced with climate friendly technologies such as conservation retrofits, solar thermal plants, or wind generators. Assuming an average lifespan of 50 years, an average capacity factor of 80 percent, and an average output of 906 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity (averaging the MIT “Future of Coal” study’s estimates for the various technologies proposed: circulating fluidized bed, subcritical, supercritical, and integrated gasification combined cycle), those 82 plants would have emitted 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s 60 percent more than the 10 billion metric ton goal set by the Virgin Earth Challenge.

On behalf of the No New Coal Plants movement, I hereby demand that you write a check for $25,000,000.

Payable to …

Well, since there actually is no organization called “No New Coal Plants Movement,” better make that 269 separate checks, each for $92,937, to the groups that make up that loosely linked but highly effective movement. You can find them here.

Be assured, there’s no better way your money could be spent. If you invest it in grassroots organizing, you’ll see more climate change averted for $25,000,000 than could possibly be accomplished through any other means. New carbon removal technologies are always welcome. But what humanity really needs most of all in the climate struggle is simply a way to overcome the special interests that are preventing us from deploying the climate-friendly energy technologies we’ve already got.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Juliette Jowit of the Manchester Guardian:

In a few years, the backlash against coal power in America has become the country’s biggest-ever environmental campaign, transforming the nation’s awareness of climate change and inspiring political leaders to take firmer action after years of doubt and delay. Plants have been defeated in at least 30 of the 50 states, uniting those with already strong environmental records, such as California, with more conservative areas, such as the southern and central states.

By the way, please don’t say that we’ve disqualified ourselves from the stipulations of the Virgin Earth Challenge because we prevented carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere rather than removed carbon dioxide that was already in the atmosphere.

After all, isn’t an ounce of prevention equal to a pound of cure?

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.