Global warming and the politics of fossil fuel

We’re not going to be able to transition to a non-fossil-fuel economy overnight, Fen Montaigne, senior editor of Yale Environment 360, said in an interview with But if you keep approving tar sands projects, or massive pipelines, or drilling in the Arctic, when does it stop?

Andy Wong/AP/File
Smoke billows from a chimney of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China.

It’s not mere anecdotal evidence: Visibly melting sea ice is the best evidence that the planet is warming. So prospecting for oil in the Arctic is a tricky endeavor that must be undertaken slowly and with extreme caution, argues Fen Montaigne, senior editor of Yale Environment 360, author of “Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica” and other books, and contributor to National Geographic, The New Yorker and Smithsonian magazines.

So just how hot is it going to get? Hotter than we can handle if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly, Montaigne tells us in an exclusive interview in which we discuss:

•    Why prospectors should proceed with extreme caution in the Arctic
•    Just how hot it’s going to get with global warming
•    Why science is being side-lined in the climate change debate
•    Why oil companies will have to keep their assets in the ground
•    Why we need to rethink agricultural subsidies
•    What we can expect next from the volatile EV market
•    What really concerns environmentalists about natural gas
•    The great fossil fuels paradox
•    Why natural gas may not only be a bridge to the future, but the future itself
•    Why the US government has no business mandating ethanol

Interview by. James Stafford of We’ll start with the Arctic Sea because so much of your work has focused on this area. Right now, the talk here is of vast opportunities, and vast environmental concern. How can we balance these two, and what is at stake? 

Fen Montaigne: I am in the go-slow camp when it comes to developing the Arctic, whether it be the region’s fossil fuel riches, its minerals, or its fisheries. I think the problems that Shell has experienced in its early attempts to drill off Alaska’s coast bolster the case for a cautious approach. Cleaning up an oil spill in that environment would be far, far more difficult than in the Gulf of Mexico, and a spill’s effects would be more severe and long lasting in a cold-water environment than in warm waters.

The Arctic nations — as well as other interested countries, such as China — need to carefully survey and assess the resources of the Arctic basin and draft a conservative plan for their exploitation. That may include a ban on drilling for oil and gas in large sections of the Arctic. How can you make the case for global warming using the decline in Arctic Sea ice, and how profound will the consequences be?

Fen Montaigne: No better evidence of the warming of the earth in the last century — and particularly in the last 30-40 years — exists than the melting of the cryosphere, or ice zones. More than 90% of the world’s glaciers are in retreat, and the disappearance of Arctic sea ice is nothing short of stunning.

I have seen this melting with my own eyes, having spent 5 months researching a book on the Antarctic Peninsula, where sea ice and glaciers are retreating rapidly. Earlier this year, I visited a glacier in Switzerland that has retreated by a half-mile since I last saw it 20 years ago; this is not mere anecdotal evidence, as nearly all the glaciers in the Alps, Andes, etc., are in rapid retreat. (Related articles: Extreme Energy, Extreme Implications: Interview with Michael Klare)

The world is warming. The overwhelming evidence is that it’s caused by human activities. The only question is how hot things are going to get. If we continue doing as little as we are doing now to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, it is entirely possible that the world might be 5 to 10 degrees F warmer in a century or two, which is not a world I’d like my children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to be living in. More broadly on the climate change scene, Yale Environment 360 recently published an article discussing the implications of a climate activist movement seeking to persuade universities, cities and other groups to sell off their investments in fossil fuel companies. What’s the long-term logic behind this movement and what will the impact be?

Fen Montaigne: I won’t attempt to predict the impact of the divestment movement. But to me one thing is clear: If in the next 100 years the world’s oil, gas and coal companies develop all the fossil fuel assets that they’re now sitting on, the world is going to be a very unpleasant place in which to live, barring some technological miracle that enables us to suck vast amounts of CO2 out of the air. It’s this realization that is driving the divestment movement and the fight to slow climate change.

Believe me, as a 60-year-old American, living in the most affluent country in the most affluent period in history, I appreciate and value what fossil fuels have done for civilization. I know we’re not going to be able to transition to a non-fossil-fuel economy overnight. But if you keep approving tar sands projects, or massive pipelines, or drilling in the Arctic, when does it stop? When does this movement to a renewable energy economy begin? If I were running a fossil fuel company, I’d be uneasy about the concept of so-called “stranded assets,” because at some point — when seas begin to rise significantly, when weather is sufficiently wild and destabilized, and when things are just too damn hot — people, business owners, and governments are going to say it’s time to stop burning fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow. I think that as global warming intensifies, it’s likely that a significant portion of the assets of fossil fuel companies are going to have to remain in the ground. As the climate debate increasingly polarizes the American public, science seems to be getting in the way of agendas on both sides. Your magazine recently noted how even environmentalists are ignoring science when it stands in the way of furthering their agendas. Are we entering a period in which scientific facts will be completely sidelined as climate change becomes the strict purview of politics?

Fen Montaigne: It’s indeed unfortunate that climate change has become so intensely politicized in the US and that both sides resort to twisting the facts and using super-heated rhetoric.

From my perspective, however, I think there is a lot more distortion of science on the climate change denier side. Still, when global warming activists ring alarm bells every time there is a heat wave or a period of intense storms, I think that’s a mistake. What happens if we have an unusually cold spring in the eastern US or Europe, like the current one? Does that mean global warming is a hoax? Of course not. Short-term ups and downs in the weather should not be the cause for either side to crow or cry wolf.

I also think it’s unwise when global warming activists warn that it’s “game over” for the climate if something like Keystone XL is approved. OK. So what happens if Keystone is approved? If that means it’s “game over,” then why should any of us worry about reducing CO2 emissions?

I do believe that in the US, we’ll soon be moving into a period where there is less debate about the science of climate change, for the simple reason that it’s going to become increasingly clear that human-caused climate change is affecting the world, from our backyards to the poles. Of course, the debate over whether global warming is real scarcely exists in Europe, which has far less of the contrarian, anti-science streak that exists in the US. There is a significant amount of resistance to the Ethanol mandate, not only because of the connection to food crops with corn-based ethanol. Do you think America is ready for this mandate?

Fen Montaigne: I think that the US’s byzantine system of agricultural subsidies is a mess and needs to be seriously reformed. And I don’t think the US government ought to be in the business of mandating ethanol production. What can we expect from the electric vehicle market in the next 2-3 years? Why have they experienced so many ups and downs? Where has it gone wrong? (Related articles: Energy and Geopolitics - New Realities Take Shape: Interview with David Shorr)

Fen Montaigne: I am no expert on electric vehicles, but I am confident that reasonably priced EVs and hybrids will become increasingly common, especially as batteries improve and charging stations become more widespread.

As has been widely noted, the Obama administration’s mandating of far-better fuel economy standards was probably the most important environmental achievement of Obama’s first term. I think that the federal government, working closely with the private sector, also has to become far more involved in stimulating the transition to a renewable energy economy.

Ultimately, it’s innovation and advancement in science, engineering, and the private sector that are going to help solve this climate problem, but a transition as massive and revolutionary as the one away from fossil fuels cannot be done without government involvement. What do you think of T. Boone Pickens’ idea to convert US trucking fleets to natural gas? Is this viable over the long term?

Fen Montaigne: I think using natural gas as a “bridge to the future,” including powering more trucks with natural gas, is a good idea. But many environmentalists are right to be concerned that natural gas is looking less like a bridge to the future, than the future itself. As I said earlier, societies have to take major steps to wean themselves off fossil fuels, and few countries are doing that now, with notable exceptions such as Denmark. Is it possible for the fossil fuels and alternative energy industries to work together to create a viable “transition” period for a sustainable future?

Fen Montaigne: Of course it’s possible. The challenge is that it’s just so easy to keep using fossil fuels, as they are such a compact, relatively inexpensive, and effective source of energy. The profits are enormous, far greater, at this point, than in the renewable energy industry. This is why it is so hard to disrupt the status quo, but that’s what has to happen. What we’re looking at is one of the great paradoxes of history — the very sources of energy that have enabled us to achieve such an advanced civilization and to bring us so many comforts and conveniences are also the sources that threaten to dangerously destabilize the climate that has fostered the growth of human civilization over the past 12,000 years. Are there any significant ways in which the environmental movement has metamorphosed in recent years due to the shale revolution, the natural gas boom, and other energy-related developments??

Fen Montaigne: Leading environmental thinkers such as Bill McKibben have pointed out that the environmental movement used to take heart in the prospect of peak-oil or peak-coal. I think the shale gas and shale oil boom of recent years, as well as the discovery of new oil and gas fields, have demonstrated that fossil fuel use is not going to decline in the next century because oil and gas fields or coal mines are tapped out. That changes environmental strategy, and is one of the reasons that McKibben’s and other groups are now targeting specific projects like Keystone XL.

And I am sympathetic to one of their central arguments: At some point, you’ve got to stop developing new oil and gas reserves and begin seriously developing alternative sources of energy. Otherwise, it’s going to get awfully hot, and rising seas are going to pose a major threat to cities from Shanghai to Miami.

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