Dr. Yergin’s Dilemma Goes Global: The Collision of Abundant Fossil Fuels and Climate Protection

Seth Kaplan

Not that long ago I wrote here about Daniel Yergin’s latest book, the long-awaited follow up to his authoritative history of human use of oil. I concluded by noting:

[How] difficult [it would be 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.

Sadly, this is not a challenge that Dr. Yergin has taken up. The New York published an essay by Dr. Yergin in its widely-read Sunday Opinion section about the changing face of petroleum supply as the United States has dramatically increased its oil and gas production.  As influential commentator Joe Romm notes in a blog post this new Yergin piece completely ignores the issue of climate. Romm argues that, “While Yergin is happy to detail America’s new orgy of fossil production, he is has nothing to say about how we could do this in an environmentally sound way, in part, I suspect, because he knows that we can’t.”

But this head-on collision of climate and increased gas and oil production is not unique to Daniel Yergin.  Over at Foreign Policy, Steve LeVine provocatively asks “Can we survive the new golden age of oil?”  He surveys the opinions of various experts about how oil and gas production around the world will continue to expand in all kinds of places including in North America and in the Eastern Mediterranean noting that:

What these experts have not said, however, is that while this new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, it could also accelerate the swamping of the planet in melted Arctic ice. So much new oil may flood the market that crude and gasoline prices might moderate and lessen consumer incentives to economize. “In the absence of U.S. leadership, I tend to agree with NASA’s James Hansen that it is ‘game over for the planet,'” Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University, told me in an email exchange.

These thoughts, and related exploration of the same theme by Michael Levi, should provide us all with a real jolt. It is simply not true that declining supplies and rising prices of oil and gas will bring about the fundamental changes that will be needed to avert climate disaster. And if you think the U.S. Federal government or a global agreement will save the day – you just haven’t been paying attention.

Dr. Yergin and others who describe a world with continued high availability (and low prices) of petroleum are presenting us with a gordian knot – and among the only folks holding a sword are the local, state and regional leaders from both government and business who are working to build a new economy around clean, zero emissions technology and practices.

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