Today's brainteaser

I recently replied to a question on the National Journal blog on what technology innovations mean for Washington.

You can read responses at the National Journal.

Here is my response:

Today’s Brainteaser:

You are a refugee in a country whose language and ways you don’t understand.  The country has, however, issued you an ATM card, and a social worker has shown you through sign language how to use the card to withdraw the money you need to feed and shelter yourself – for now.  Unfortunately, you can’t tell how much money you have left in the account, and every day you see fellow refugees who have exhausted their accounts carted off to prison as indigents.  You fear this could happen to you and your children at any moment.

One day, the social worker gives you a second ATM card, though again, you have no idea how much is in your new second account.  Do you:

  1. Use the second card to hire a tutor to teach you the language and to buy the tools you need to start earning a living?

Or:

  1. Use the second card to throw a big party and buy a 50-inch flat screen TV?

See the correct answer at the bottom of this article.

When it comes to climate change, we are like the refugee. The build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere brings us closer to a number of potential environmental catastrophes, including several feet of sea level rise, off-the-chart heat as the new normal, deserts where fertile farmland used to be, and widespread extinction of plant and animal life.  We know our current path leads to a bad future, even if we aren’t quite sure when.

Our new access to natural gas is like the second ATM card – a gift of significant but unknown value – in two ways.  First, natural gas combustion yields less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal combustion.  When we shift from coal to natural gas in generating electricity, we slow down the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Second, and more importantly, the natural gas boon can boost our economy.  (The U.S. oil boon is like the gas boon in the second respect, but not the first.)  Perhaps some of the revenue generated by the production of gas and oil can be used to create an energy trust fund – a concept favored by both President Obama and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – advancing a range of low-emitting technologies, including those that capture and store the carbon dioxide from coal and gas use.

Of course, technologies only get deployed if there’s a market for them, and low-emitting technologies need policy – such as a price on carbon dioxide emissions – to get fully deployed.  Maybe an improved economy might also make it easier for us to talk again about creating such policy.

Should we (A) invest the gift we’ve been given in our new-found access to natural gas and oil, or (B) just burn it up along with the fuel itself?

The correct answer to Today’s Brainteaser is (A).  Though hopefully you figured that out already.