Are We Toast?

Or, Do We Have The Time And Wisdom To Protect Our Planet's Climate?

Development, Energy and Carbon


The history of the industrialized, or developed, nations has been the history of increasingly efficient harnessing and conversion of energy to accomplish desired work. For centuries man's use of energy was limited to open fires to providing light, heat for cooking, and in some cultures the forging of metals. In the late 1700's the Industrial Revolution began in England when the energy of fire was used to generate steam, which contained energy in the form of heat and which could be distributed and which could be controlled by valves. The ability to distribute and control energy made it possible to operate machinery. While water and wind had previously been used to power machinery, neither were overly efficient, wind lacked reliability and water was restricted to limited locations, unlike steam which could be generated and used almost anywhere. However, steam had the disadvantage that it the latent energy of heat could not be transmitted for any significant distance. When steam was used to power a generator and produce electricity this obstacle was finally overcome. The invention of the internal combustion engine greatly increased the efficiency by converting the energy of fire directly into useful work, eliminating the distribution of latent energy from source (fire) to its "machine".

Industrialized societies have been greatly changed by the introduction of machinery with far greater strength and durability than human or animal muscle power. While other sources, such as hydro and nuclear, provide power for our machinery combustion is still our primary energy source. Fundamentally all combustion is the same process, whether it is the burning of coal to generate electricity, the burning of gasoline to power an automobile, or the consumption of food to power our bodies and indeed to keep us alive. In each case, energy is derived from the oxidation, or burning, of carbohydrates (sugars) that have been formed by the process of photosynthesis in plants. In photosynthesis, solar energy drives the chemical combination of carbon dioxide and water to form complex carbohydrates, or sugars, while giving off oxygen as a by-product. Like all other living organisms plants also respire, chemically breaking down carbohydrates formed during photosynthesis into carbon dioxide and water and the energy necessary to sustain life. Carbohydrate that is not burned (oxidized) by plant respiration is utilized as growth of the plant (i.e. wood, leaves, flowers) and eventually is oxidized by combustion, respiration by other organisms, or by microbial decay, again releasing energy and producing carbon dioxide and water; completing the cycle.

Approximately 250 million years ago, at the junction of the Permian and Triassic ages, major geological shifts of the earth occurred and approximately 95% of the life of Earth became extinct. In some areas the accumulated remnants of abundant algae, invertebrates and other sea life that covered what was then an ocean floor were covered with sediments, isolating the carbon-rich material from oxygen. And on earth, some of the lush swamps and other heavily vegetated areas were covered with mud and other sediments. Through geologic time, these covered deposits were subjected to pressure and heat, forming what we now know as "fossil fuels". If of ocean, or marine, origin the fuels are typically petroleum or natural gas, and if from terrestrial, or land, origin the fuel is coal. In either case the result is the same, the carbon cycle was interrupted and the photosynthetically produced sugars were not oxidized. The carbon that was removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago was locked deep within the earth. When we now burn, or oxidize, fossil fuels the ancient carbon again forms carbon dioxide gas which is released into the atmosphere.

It is the oxidation of these prehistoric carbon compounds for energy that releases the vast quantities of prehistoric carbon into the atmosphere and is primarily responsible for the global climate change crises. The challenges that face mankind in resolving the climate crises are numerous, complex and immediate. Do be successful will require that we all alter our lifestyles; to fail will impose drastic impacts upon our children and grandchildren. In addition to changing the way we treat our environment, success will also require the development and application of new technologies; and of even greater difficulty the resolution of global cultural disparities. Do we have the time, and the wisdom, to take the actions necessary to protect the climate of our planet, or are we toast?








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