Published on YaleGlobal Online Magazine (
Home > As Arctic Melts, Business As Usual

As Arctic Melts, Business As Usual

The compulsion to use dangerous substances dominates routines at an addict’s peril. And such is the case with global dependence on burning fossil fuels, as they irreparably ruin the planet, argues Will Hickey. An example is melting Arctic ice, already changing global weather patterns. Still, governments and oil companies are impatient to head to the Arctic and drill for more fossil fuels. As data pile up on rising seas, raging wildfires and floods, volatile weather of all types, few in government deny that global warming is underway. Industries and governments prepare for climate change as the new normal. But too many governments are in denial about the urgency of taking serious action to promote conservation, develop alternative fuels and curb the addiction. One logical step would be a progressive tax on carbon emissions. Another would be for global political leaders to stop considering climate change as a distant, abstract danger. Citizens and policymakers can demand that governments do their job and stop prioritizing immediate economic interests over long-term security. – YaleGlobal

As Arctic Melts, Business As Usual

Nations ignore the addiction to fossil fuels – and climate change – at their peril
Will Hickey
YaleGlobal, 10 October 2012
While the world sleeps: Arctic ice is melting at a record rate - this NASA photo shows (top); as the ice of Greenland's Ilulissat glacier breaks up, companies dream of finding new oil and gas (bottom)

DAEJEON: Record melting of Arctic ice has alarmed climate scientists, but the extraction industry and shippers are thrilled at new business prospects. Having drained the world of most accessible oil, companies see in the Arctic Circle a most striking source for long-term fossil-fuel development. Shipping companies plan direct routes to Asia. It’s high time governments wake up to real danger.

 A recent UN report projects Arctic summer ice to be non-existent by 2020. Climate researchers warn that the rapidly melting ice, with darker ocean waters that absorb the sun’s heat, will contribute to a shifting jet stream, creating new and unpredictable volatile weather patterns.

International oil companies acknowledge the melting is an effect of global warming. Yet instead of being alarmed, countries such as the US, Norway, Russia and even China are using the melting as a pretext for strategic benefit from global warming to gain new fossil fuel supplies. Global-warming skeptics, free-market adamants, major companies and governments have quickly come to accept future climate change as a new normal. 

Few deny that climate change is underway. Whether governments and humans can take steps to stem their addiction and help the planet recover is the real issue. 

In his 2006 environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, former US Vice President Al Gore shows a scale. On one side is the earth, the other side, a sum of gold bricks. He presumes the world’s long-term health is considerably heavier than the pile of gold bricks of economic interests and that world governments would take concerted action to stop it.  He was wrong. Most countries remain silent to the risks of climate change, and their non-policies continue to ignore it.  

Short-term economic interests outweigh long-term economic security.

Major companies and governments have quickly come to accept future climate change as a new normal.

Recent policy enactments, such as the EU imposing a carbon tax on airlines, were quickly shot down by China and India as a sovereignty infringement. Yet, air travel continues to grow exponentially with significant fossil fuel emissions. If the severe droughts, firestorms and floods of 2012 have not convinced policymakers of a creeping problem, not much more can. This is a conundrum in today’s ecology and sociology: nominal recognition of a problem with changing weather patterns, yet governments quickly pushing through new and wider roads, airports, bridges and coal-fired plants to power their economies and meet surging demand.

With fossil-fuel demand skyrocketing due to rising incomes in Asia and Africa, two correlated and disastrous scenarios loom without changes in government energy policies: 1) With less than 5 percent of the global population, the US economy depends on 25 percent of the world’s energy. Other nations are in a hurry to catch up to the US. It’s likely that the current rate of 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 will rise to 450 ppm, 2) Within 16 years, or sooner at current fossil fuel burn rates, the world will breach the earth’s 565 gigatons absorption capacity of CO2.  The International Energy Agency predicts that either situation can trigger a global increase in temperature of more than 2°C.

A progressive carbon tax would dampen world demand, argues Cornell University economist Robert Frank in a New York Times op-ed. Frank’s suggestions won’t resonate with current world leaders who are committed first to attending to their economies. A quick rebuttal by the National Review showed more concern about any increasing gasoline costs for US consumers – who compared with much of the world pay low prices for their fuel – than climate-change issues.  Recently, due to the March 2011 triple tragedy in Fukushima, Japan has announced a moratorium on nuclear power, Germany has also banned nuclear by 2020. Both democratic industrial powerhouses must regress to burning more fossil fuels to make up energy shortfalls, adding to exponentially growing world demand!

If the severe droughts, firestorms and floods haven’t convinced policymakers of a creeping problem,
what more can?

In developing Asia, increasing fossil-fuel demand is apparent everywhere. Societies are not only addicted to oil, but their economic-growth projections and social paradigms revolve around expanding its use far into the future.  A few examples of growing living standards and fossil-fuel consumption in Asia should suffice: China, with a soaring automotive industry growth rate of 20 percent per year, is now the largest car market in the world, surpassing the US in 2009. China has more coal-fired electric power generation plants than the EU and US combined, and is building more yearly. Noteworthy is the electricity generated by coal-fired plants for so-called clean- energy high-speed trains, which creates a zero-sum game.

Coal remains the cheapest way to generate electricity near distribution grids. While the Three Gorges dam is a brilliant harness for China’s voracious demand, the distribution of electricity from that project on the current grid supports only about 1.7 percent of total demand. China has considerable thermal coal reserves, and is importing more from Australia, Indonesia and Mongolia.  Even though China’s coal-fired plants are increasingly more efficient than their Western counterparts – China’s plants are 44 percent efficient to US plants at 40 percent – there is no such thing as “clean coal.” CO2 emissions from coal remain consistently large and twice as high as natural gas-fired plants.  

India is similar to China in population size, fossil-fuel use and electricity demand, but as the world’s largest democracy, any conversion to nuclear or renewable energy, such as dams, will be subjected ad nauseum to endless discussion and NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard issues. Change will come slowly or not at all. India also faces growing traffic jams in the megapolises of New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Due to a lack of emissions controls and enforcement standards, pollution soars. The fuel subsidy in India today is essentially a payment to the oil industry to keep the economy humming. Yet, the Indian subcontinent has a long coastline and depends on consistent monsoonal rains for agriculture. More than half India’s workforce depends on farming, and climate change, if not addressed, will disrupt life patterns for many.  

In Asia, economic-growth projections and social paradigms revolve around expanding fossil-fuel use far into the future.

The contradiction of climate-change impact and increasing fossil-fuel addiction is more paradoxical in Indonesia than in any other country. Indonesia has an economic boom fueled by its vast exports of coal and crude oil to other countries. This boom has created domestic demand for cars and air-travel that require huge inputs of fuel. Petrol-wasting traffic jams and decrepit infrastructure are legendary in Jakarta, Bandung and Bali. There’s little reliable public transport. The poor travel via heavy-polluting motorcycles and private buses.

Indonesia has no plans to lessen its fossil fuel obsession, where economic activity is supported by fuel subsidies. Government responses have been to lengthen freeways, build higher overpasses and “supersize” airports, thus exacerbating fossil-fuel addiction. Education levels remain low, so nuclear power is out of the question, and profound distrust of government policies remain, thus developing alternative energy will be slow and possibly non-sustainable. Jakarta, with more than 20 million people, lies on a coastal plain and is susceptible to annual monsoonal flooding.

Politicians consider global warming as an abstract concept far into the future, primarily concerned about pleasing constituencies economically. Additionally, the power of the oil and mining companies to shape economic policy, the gold bricks in Gore’s documentary, is formidable. Hypocritically, the energy industry acknowledges, by way of Arctic ice melting and considering it an economic benefit, that global warming exists, even while paying lobbying groups to deny it as unscientific and attack any who claim a looming problem.

As our world hangs in the balance, policymakers must aggressively confront climate change issues.


Will Hickey, twice a Fulbright professor of energy and human resources, is an associate professor of management at Solbridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea. He can be reached at

Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

28 October 2012
nuclear plants are aclaulty very safe, their nuclear waste is however one of the big drawbacks it takes a very long time for it to become safe thousands upon thousands of years so it needs to be stored somewhere and be kept safe for that amount of time needless to say there is no structure so far that can remain secure and also contain barrels of waste for that amount of time. the safety of a nuclear powerplant is not aclaulty a big concern the scenes in movies where powerplants act like nuclear bombs are fictional as nuclear bombs use completley different principals to operate however meltdowns can occur like chernobyl but these are very rarethere is also the problem of NIMBY or (not in my back yard) where people can see the benefits of them but do not want them nearby them so finding areas near enough to send the energy without alot of energy loss without being too close to poulation centers is a difficult task. also the nuclear waste has been used by terrorists where they surround a standard bomb with nuclear waste creating what is called a dirty bomb this spreads nuclear waste over large areas and has lasting panels are very safe and efficient even in poor lighting conditions they can power a home however in order to power the entire continental united states on a full size map a post stamp represents the amount of solar panels that would be required (if they were all grouped together) also cost is a big factor while the solar panels will essentially pay electricity bills for you it can take around 20 years before a profit is seen leaving it an undesireable option for the poorer people.P.S. you could also mention hydro electric and windmills they are also goodGood luck with your project
-Pramod , TFQMbcaMCeIzT
13 October 2012
Prof Hicky's timely reminder is more than a wake-up call. Industrialized nations have already contributed their mite in damaging the global environment and now the emerging economies of China, India and Indonesia are continuing this crime on the premise that the take off stage, in the process of development, does demand intense use of fossil fuel. This was how the rich nations of today grew up during the pre and post industrialization phases of economic growth. No doubt there is a conflict between short-term economic gains versus long-term environmental costs. Alternate sources of ennergy can address the long-term problem in question but the high cost of harnessing new sources of renewable energy will remains a drag. In a globalized and inter-connected world, where high volumes of trade continue to cope up with high volumes of global consumption demand, there is no sight or evidence of lowering consumption of fossil fuel in the near future. Cost efficiency measures of production will continue to keep the use of coal as the primary source of fuel energy. I too advocate progressive tax on carbon emission and laud the Government of India for lowering the subsidies on auto fuel. This is the right step to make end users realize that the cost of envoirment damage must be compensated for. Even though this will cuts into profit margins of business firms and raise the price of goods and services, it would hopefully change the consumption pattern or behavior of consumers. Keynes famous qoute that " In the long-run we are all dead" should be now written as " In the long-run our planet will stay alive"
-Jacob Kurien , Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, China
12 October 2012
This article is spot on. It diagnoses the problem and goes on to suggest a solution. The problem is the price structure reflecting short term economic interests based upon current extraction costs without any consideration of long term consequences being it exhaustion of resources or deterioration of the environment. A carbon tax is the way to address these problems - maybe the only way. It will introduce polluter pays principle (PPP) on a global scale. Countries are reluctant to support this underlining another weak point - the absence of some kind of global governance. As the article points out the behavior is irresponsible. The Arctic is extremely sensitive to any kind of mining, off shore etc. What is also frightening is the question of who has the right to the resources. Existing international treaties draw borders, but some of the resources are found in disputed areas. Key players such as the U.S. and Russia may not only be interested because of resources, but also to control the region having their defense in mind. China's interests may be more commercial as China's geographical position does not lead to important foreign- an security policies interests, but obviously American and/or Russian sovereignty would make it much more difficult for China to get access to the resources . A great power drive to link exploitation of resources and sovereignty/security/defense consideration is exactly what the Arctic region does NOT need and yet it emerges as a possible maybe even likely outcome.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.
Former State-Secretary, Royal Danish Foreign Ministry.
-joergen oerstroem moeller , singapore
11 October 2012
1. Climate change is primarily driven by the sun. Anything that man may do to affect the climate is inconsequential compared to the activity of the sun. Over 99.9% of greenhouse gasses consists of natural water vapor from the ocean, which is evaporated by sunlight. The polar ice caps melt and then later re-freeze. There is nothing new under the sun.
2. Anomalies in local weather patterns are often driven by excessive spraying, or cloud-seeding. The government-sponsored and deliberate spraying of particulate in the atmosphere is far more of a problem than emissions from cars and such.
3. In places where there is excessive smog from automobile exhaust, coal burning, or other industry emissions, it is very localized. It might seriously affect the health of those who live in certain cities, but it but a drop in the ocean compared to the vast volume of the entire global atmosphere, which is so resilient, that it could absorb and recover from almost anything in time.
4. The whole idea that free-thinking scientists are influenced by money from oil companies is a form of mind control. Government money in climate research is thousands of times more influential than corporate money. Those who discredit actual science by saying it is influenced by oil company money; are themselves influenced by government money, and are merely trying to shout down good science that threatens their livelihood. It is complete hypocrisy.
5. The whole issue of climate change really has nothing to do with real science. It is a political issue. It is an excuse to institute global taxation, as a path towards global governance. It is pure money and politics, and is completely removed from the objective observation of the physical world.
-Keith Humphrey , Fort Collins, Colorado
10 October 2012
The comparison to drug addicts or chronic alcoholics is accurate.
In truth there is no individual or a group of people to blame as this behavior stems from inherent human nature. Present human beings are still in a transitional phase between the animal level of nature and true humans.
Although much more sophisticated and individualistic than animals, people today still behave in an instinctive manner, fully obliging to the pleasure/pain principle, simply automatically reacting towards more pleasure and avoiding more pain.
The whole of human history is about sudden jumps, when the actual state became intolerable and then a revolution or war pushed the generation to another, higher level.
We are standing ahead of such a threshold today, the present constant quantitative growth economic model and its serving social system pushed humanity and the surrounding natural system to the brink of collapse. There is ample amount of scientific study and the daily events of the deepening crisis to prove it.
But still people are incapable of stopping.
The only hope is that finally we make the breakthrough to the truly human level, which means an objective and critical self analysis and a subsequent change of inherent nature.
Humanity has evolved into a single, global, interdependent network, whether we like it or not we are interconnected with unbreakable chains.
The next level of our evolution can be accessed by a conscious, self changing path when the present individualistic attitude and rejection towards others changes to a mutually responsible, cooperative attitude and behavior, or unprecedented crisis and suffering will force us to reach the same level as we do not have a choice regarding the outcome.
So the question is if we want to reach the truly human level willingly with full awareness, or through beatings from behind.
Everything depends on us.
-Zsolt , New Zealand