The reason behind global warming

Victor M. Ponce

[Documented version]

In the beginning, there was carbon dioxide and water. These originated inside the Earth and in the rocks. Through photosynthesis, these two components combined into organic matter, storing, through millennia, the energy of the sun in chemical compounds called carbohydrates. The old carbohydrates, or hydrocarbons, were sequestered near the Earth's surface, constituting the unspent, or surplus energy.

The carbon dioxide lost to organic matter was eventually replaced by new, or virgin, carbon dioxide, originating in the rocks and volcano eruptions. Some of it was recycled through the biosphere. Through geologic time, the system could achieve dynamic equilibrium only if sufficient amounts of carbon were sequestered to balance the new carbon being incorporated onto the atmosphere.

One can say that the sequestered carbon is the old, or yesterday's energy, while the current energy of the sun is the new, or today's energy. The distinction is important because it raises a question that has an ethical implication. If the use of old energy changes the composition of the atmosphere beyond our capacity to adjust, are we justified in this pursuit? Can we become agents of geologic change within a contemporary timeframe?

Species come and go, but Nature is much more resilient. Gaia theory teaches us that the natural world will adjust to changes. The question that remains is: "Will our species be able to adjust?"

The burning of fossil fuels increases our quality of life. Mostly, it has increased mobility and comfort (or convenience). In the past 100 years, mobility has become a basic necessity of our fast-paced lifestyle. Comfort has also become a necessity. Other lifestyles may not be as injurious to the atmosphere or planet, but they are surely not as mobile or comfortable.

Thus, it boils down to what to do with our increased mobility and comfort. Can we afford to give up some of it? This is a rhetorical question, because at this point, the Tragedy of the Commons takes over. When the cost of benefits accruing to one individual (being more mobile and more comfortable) are borne by humanity at-large, the benefit/cost ratio turns out to be astronomical. Therefore, economics is clueless in regard to solving this problem.

Humanity needs to get together, assess the facts, eventually move away from old energy, and use only today's energy. Only then will we be truly able to achieve sustainability. How did we get into this predicament? What are we leaving for the future inhabitants of the planet? When are we going to do something about it?