Global warming and clean energy in Asia The year 1896 was “a very good year” for many reasons. It was in that year that Puccini’s Opera, La Bohème, premiered, gold was discovered in the Yukon, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished its first year at around 41. But perhaps closer to our subject, two other events stand out. Firstly, Henry Ford introduced the gasoline-fueled automobile to America and, secondly, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested that a greenhouse-like warming of the planet could result from increasing atmospheric CO2. Thus, the possibility that the industrial revolution would ultimately become incompatible with the physical environment was first envisioned.
Modern industry is foundational for contemporary society. Yet, its dependence upon fossil fuels, primarily, and upon other chemicals, secondarily, threatens to destroy that very same society. One should note, at the outset, that those industrial processes do not so much create greenhouse gases, as they are termed, but rather release them. In fact, the term “fossil fuels” originates in the idea that they – petroleum, coal, and natural gas – originate in the decayed remains of plants and animals that lived long ago. Although not universally accepted, this theory originates with the 18th century Russian chemist Mikhail Lomonosov, who first argued: “Rock oil originates as tiny bodies of animals buried in the sediments which, under the influence of increased temperature and pressure acting during an unimaginable long period of time, transform into rock oil.”
Thus, global warming threatens to restore our planet to an ancient equilibrium – an equilibrium that was home to tropical plants and dinosaurs, but not to man.
It is because of this integration with our economic system that the problem is so complex. And, in particular, because of the way our economic system incorporates so much of society, climate change issues are, indeed, issues for every man and woman on the planet.
As the chemist Nathan Lewis has said: “The currency of the world is not the dollar, it’s the joule” (Lewis, Nathan S. (2007), “Powering the Planet”, Engineering and Science). Thus, the value in modern industrial processes is that they harness energy, focusing the transformational power of machines into production. Unfortunately, although there are numerous sources of energy which are not accompanied by the emission of greenhouse gases – solar and wind – the technology of transmission and storage of energy is still in its infancy.
Mulan Wind Farm by Land Rover Our Planet. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.
Image: “Mulan Wind Farm”, by Land Rover Our Planet. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
Fossil fuels are simply one of the most efficient forms of stored energy. They are also a convenient form in which to transport energy to the places where it is needed.
Fossil fuels are integrated not only into our economy, but into our society as well. The automobile, for example, is as much a cultural icon as it is a means of transportation. Thus, the economic consequences of energy production, use, storage, and transmission, as well as any attempts to control these processes, will reflect in the political arena, in daily life, on Wall Street, and on the global economy through a plethora of intricate, often interlocking, mechanisms.
Western society has developed itself, largely oblivious to concerns of climatic change. The benefits in terms of quality of life are manifest, and they have become, arguably, the West’s primary export to the rest of the world. The, so-called, under-developed world has bought-in to the program and now seeks to align itself, economically, if not culturally, with the West. Yet, just as this dream begins to appear real, the limitations imposed by global warming are becoming apparent.