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Prizing the Power of the Sea

By Michael Russell

John Muir was born one of eight children in the small Scottish town of Dunbar, but it was here in California that he made his mark as one of the world's more important naturalists and preservers of this great nation's natural heritage.

This week, Scotland Week in North America, the Scottish government and the Sierra Club -- which Muir founded -- will take time to honor his memory. As we do so, I cannot help but wonder what he would make of the precarious environmental position we now find ourselves in. With scientific consensus seeing dramatically higher temperatures by the end of this century, more intense hurricanes and weather events, and dangerously high rises in sea levels, how would John Muir take on what the Sierra Club calls the "climate crossroads"?

He would most certainly bring a passionate zeal for our natural resources to the debate. Muir was never deterred by those naysayers who thought his idealism misplaced. He won many battles, and some he lost. But he built movements for change that inspired millions, forced political leaders to join his cause and changed not only hearts, but minds. Muir was always more than an idealistic naturalist; he was a persuasive advocate, as adept as any politician at winning public support.

Muir would also look to the most important resource around him for solutions; innovative people. He would find many in his native Scotland and in his adopted California. He would rightly see that that the only way we can effectively address the climate crisis is through creative ideas that win the support of the public and political leaders.

In San Francisco this week, I take great heart from this reality. The Scots and the Californians not only share some of the world's most dramatic landscapes and magnificent natural resources, we have also always shared a passion for scientific exploration and technological invention. Scots invented penicillin and pioneered the first MRI scanners, while 57 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to University of California faculty. And from Silicon Valley to Edinburgh's new BioQuarter, Scots and Californians have staked out leadership positions in the technology and life sciences sectors of the future.

Muir would not put such a precious resource -- the finest innovators in the world -- to waste.

In particular, I think Muir would have been excited by the prospect that the natural resources around us may actually be the key to solving the climate crisis. The potential of wind, solar and wave energy to produce renewable, clean sources of power and reduce our dependency on methods that damage our environmental future should be at the top of our list of solutions.

Some politicians down play the need for such renewable energy sources. Others complain about the cost, or that these technologies are too nascent. Muir would have fought such naysayers. He would have looked to Scotland, where we recently announced 10 marine energy projects that will generate up to 1.2 gigawatts of energy -- enough to power 700,000 homes. The capital investment in these projects will be around $4 billion, and builds on plans for 11 gigawatts of wind energy projects. Muir would have been encouraged by the ambitious climate-change policies being pioneered by California and the remarkable renewable energy research and commercialization happening around this state.

Muir would have driven all of us to do more. He would have reminded us of the stakes and called for an ambitious effort to match that importance. In that spirit, let me lay out a challenge that we feel has the potential to bring the best and brightest minds together to make progress on climate change. My message: to the researchers, engineers, companies and investors of California, and the entire United States, look east to Scotland, where we are offering a 10 million pound ($15.29 million) prize for the team that can demonstrate, in Scottish waters, a commercially viable wave or tidal stream energy technology that achieves the greatest volume of electrical output over a two-year period using only the power of the sea.

With the Saltire Prize, we are putting our money where Muir would have wanted it. Bringing the advocates and the innovators -- from Scotland, California and elsewhere -- together in common cause to protect our natural resources and enhance our environment. What better way to honor him.


Michael Russell is Scotland's Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, and former minister for the environment. He will visit the San Francisco Bay Area on April 8 and 9 as part of Scotland Week 2010.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle - Open Forum, April 5, 2010.

See also: John Muir's Legacy Lives On - by The Scottish Government, News Release, April 9, 2010. "The Sierra Club is honored to share John Muir's legacy with the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Government. Together, we can face the greatest global challenge of our generation. Together, we can bend the arc of history and beat climate change." - Carl Pope

Life and Contributions of John Muir

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