Doctor Yergin’s dilemma

Seth Kaplan

Update – The debate about this phenomena continues.  See compilation of further ruminations about continued available petroleum and climate from a variety of powerful voices in another post from June 11, 2012.  And some of the same ideas are chewed on in an interesting op-ed by Reuters editor Chrystia Freeland in the August 9, 2012 New York Times.

In 1991 Daniel Yergin published his massive history of the petroleum industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. Regardless of what you think about Yergin’s perspective on the topic, it is hard to dispute the complete and authoritative nature of that book. It provided a guided tour through the life of one of the defining industries of the 20th century and remains a powerful and surprisingly readable look at this essential subject.

In the years that followed there was strong interest in an update to The Prize that brought the story up towards the present and grappled with challenges to the ascendancy of petroleum in our economy and society – like the realization that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is causing deep and systemic damage to the planet.

In 2011 Doctor Yergin did produce that much awaited sequel, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. That book contains six full chapters detailing the evolution of modern climate science and leaves no doubt about the fundamental validity of the observation that the phenomena of global warming from the burning of petroleum and other fossil fuels is indeed, very real.

However, that point must play out against the backdrop of Dr. Yergin’s deep and abiding belief that the there is no such thing as “peak oil” – that global oil production may plateau and stop rising but that improvements in technology mean that we will never see a steep decline in exploitable oil reserves. Indeed, he is even more firm in his belief that if you look at the broader array of fossil hydrocarbons, including natural gas, that the progression of technologies like hydraulic fracturing and its deployment across the world will lead to continued availability of such fuels at fairly low prices for the long term – really, he argues, indefinitely. This is a hard perspective for a climate advocate to ponder – he is in effect arguing that continued availability of hydrocarbons is an “inconvenient truth” that those addressing the challenge of global warming must face, that the argument that “we are running out of the stuff anyway” is simply not part of the debate about continued use of fossil fuels.

But Dr. Yergin has his own dilemma to confront: he does not address the fundamental collision between his observations about the validity of climate science and his belief that we are not in danger of running out of affordable hydrocarbons. This is an especially difficult circle for him to square as he is fundamentally an optimist – believing that society has always found technological solutions to the problems we have encountered and created for ourselves in the past and we will do so again. To Dr. Yergin’s credit he does engage renewable energy and energy efficiency, the  key tools for decarbonizing our economy, at  length in The Quest but never quite gets to the point of describing a path to a future where we are no longer burning fossil fuels and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It would be very difficult for Dr. Yergin to fully confront the dilemma implicit in his work – that the presence of affordable hydrocarbons (oil and/or natural gas) for indefinite future will create a strong pull constantly moving us away from making the reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions that science tells us we need to make in order to save ourselves.

Bill McKibben has noted on many occasions, getting off fossil fuels will be the hardest thing that humanity has ever done and the only thing that would be harder would be living in the world where we don’t. And Dr. Yergin is telling us that his expert analysis is that it will be even harder than many believe to make that transition because new technologies and techniques will continue to increase the pool of available fossil fuels – but he has looked at the climate science and he does not deny that we must make the transition.


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