The Quest for Connection

10/10/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

Daniel Yergin has succeeded as a historian of energy, but failed as envisioner of a tolerable future.

On the jacket of his new book, a parade of establishment blurb-writers certify him as "one of the world's most experienced and influential authorities on global energy" (Henry Kissinger). The Quest will, writes Senator Richard Lugar, "help us see our way to a safer and sounder energy future."

No, with all due respect, it won't.

Yergin is not a global warming denier: that's not the problem. He devotes an entire section of his book to the movement to reduce drastically the production of greenhouse gases. Deniers are careless with fact, as Senator James Imhofe is. Yergin is a step beyond denial, but, apart from some vague bromides about taking the environment into account, he contents himself with reporting on the movement against global warming without deeply engaging with the evidence on which it is based.

Yergin won his silver spurs with a Pulitzer-winning history about men seeking the "prize" of oil: finding it, winning rights to it, arranging a supportive foreign policy, extracting the oil, shipping it, refining it, distributing it, and in the process building giant corporations. His new book is largely a continuation of this complex story (the first 40% of The Quest), plus a consideration of other sources of energy, ending with such renewables as wind and solar.
Other critics of Yergin's new book have dealt with his ridicule for the analysts who say we've reached or soon will reach the top of global oil production. Though Yergin knows better, he starts his chapter on peak petroleum by mischaracterizing the term: "this fear, that the world is running out of oil, comes with a name: peak oil." Actually, analysts such as Richard Heinberg or the late Matt Simmons are quick to explain patiently that at the peak, about half of the legacy of oil will remain in the ground, but will be harder to extract and thus more expensive. What these analysts anticipate is the end of relatively cheap oil.

Yergin believes that technology will save us, as 3D seismic imaging, horizontal drilling, and "fracking" have facilitated discovery and extraction. He hopes that the supply will be boosted by unconventional sources such as what is found in Alberta (oil sand to enthusiasts, bitumen or tar sand to critics), and deposits discovered off the coast of Brazil under a layer of salt, under very deep water.

The disconnect, in Yergin, comes when he fails to link the section on the dangers of greenhouse gases with the assurances about supply. If true, the assurances are a disaster in the making, because, according to James Hansen and many other climate scientists, the CO2 produced by the combustion of hydrocarbons will alter the conditions in which civilization arose and has thrived, and may set off positive feedback loops in which, for example, melting tundra releases methane that further warms the planet.

But let us praise Yergin as an engaging, well-informed historian of oil (and other energy sources). He has not only researched developments, but given us exciting narratives leavened by a wry wit. It's not his fault that the very success of this quest has not only blessed us with much of the material basis of modernity but also put us in terrible danger. As an analyst, his failure is not denial; it's disconnection.

This disconnect is shown in his conclusion: that "the growth in world energy demand in the coming decades will be very large" and "about 75 to 80 percent of world energy is expected to be carbon based two decades from now," which would represent only a slight reduction from the present "over 80%." However, the total amount used would be more: "by 2030 overall global energy consumption may be 35 or 40 percent greater than it is today." According to the analysts described in Yergin's section on "climate and carbon," this would produce a global warming disaster.

It's not Yergin's job, as a historian, to halt global warming. But when he appears in the media as, in Kissinger's phrase, "one of the world's most experienced and influential authorities on global energy," then it is his job to connect his prognostications with what climate scientists have found and are finding.

After summarizing the science of climate change, Yergin, in his balanced and fair tone, gives the contrary position, which, as he says, represents "the minority." He does not reveal that the minority is only 2% of relevant scientists, which is vastly fewer than the doubters and fence-sitters with regard to Einstein's general relativity before Eddington's observations during the solar eclipse of 1919

Yergin is quite right that "to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released when coal, oil, and natural gas -- and wood and other combustibles -- are burned" is no less than an "awesome challenge." But it is a challenge that must be faced, not disconnected from as if it's a boxcar that can left on a distant siding somewhere in the Nevada of the mind.

We'd all benefit if an analyst as intelligent and influential as Yergin would take seriously the findings of climate science and imagine an energy "mix" that would allow us to thrive, rather than slip into disaster.