The reason behind global warming: Old vs. new energy

Victor M. Ponce

In the beginning, there was carbon dioxide and water. These chemical compounds 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 unused carbohydrates were sequestered below the Earth's surface, and, in geologic time, transformed into hydrocarbons, 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 a 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; however, 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 is for the avowed purpose of improving 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. All the while, comfort has also become a necessity. Other lifestyles may not be as injurious to the atmosphere or planet as ours, but they are surely not as mobile or comfortable.

Thus, it boils down to what to do with our lifestyle's 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. Economics is clueless on how to solve this problem.

Humanity needs to get together, assess the facts, and eventually shy 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 to the future generations? When are we going to do something meaningful about it?