‘He can’t quite recognise the urgency’: Yergin’s new book seems to miss some realities of the climate crisis

Daniel Yergin has a deep understanding of the oil industry, but he’s so embedded in old patterns of thought that he can’t quite recognise the urgency of the climate crisis, writes Bill McKibben

Friday 02 October 2020 15:50

As I type this review, the banner headline in the Los Angeles Times is “California’s Climate Apocalypse”, dozens are dead across the Pacific Coast and Instagram is filled with grim images of orange skies above San Francisco. This summer has had the highest reliably measured temperature in history (54.4C in Death Valley); record rainfall across large swaths of Africa that has, for instance, destroyed a quarter of Nigeria’s rice crop; and blazes across vast areas of Siberia have poured record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. We are, in other words, in a climate emergency.

But you’d never know that from Daniel Yergin’s new book. Like its predecessor The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations is written in magisterial mode, staring down from the heights of history at the great men who make it. Yergin, who has won the Pulitzer Prize and many other accolades across a storied career, makes a fairly simple argument: Global energy markets have been remade in the past decade by the American fracking surge, which raised the supply and lowered the cost of oil and gas; by Vladimir Putin’s canny geopolitics; and by the continued rise of Xi Jinping’s China, whose strategic designs on the South China Sea and expansionist aims with its massive international investment strategy known as Belt and Road Initiative across Asia are recasting political influence.

Change clearly needs to come fast, and Yergin is so embedded in old patterns of thought that he can't quite recognise the urgency

We are treated along the way to a variety of potted histories for the uninitiated (the story of Harold Hamm, pioneer fracker, has been told so many times before; but then, so has the story of 15th-century Chinese mariner Zheng He, and the story of Osama bin Laden, and most of the other stories in this book); and colourful details of the rich and powerful (Putin and Xi serving each other pancakes and ice cream at various confabs). But the takeaway is fairly straightforward: The new “international order for petroleum” would no longer be shaped by OPEC. So far, so good – Yergin understands oil markets, and for the past 100 years, that was what you needed to know to understand the future of energy.

In 2020, however, you need to understand a lot of other things, too, and I'm not sure Yergin does. In particular, he’s behind the curve on the volatile mix of activism, engineering and climate science that seems to be reshaping the energy world in real time.

If you want to get a sense of a historian's reach, it's always interesting to read accounts of events that one actually witnessed – several examples are in the book, none of which do Yergin much credit. One of the most egregious concerns the 2016 standoff at Standing Rock, over the Dakota Access pipeline. He believes that the demonstrators who went to the site were “rallied by the environmental group Greenpeace”, a distinct misunderstanding. In fact, Indigenous groups from around the continent mustered at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers to take on the pipeline company – and that’s important because Indigenous people from Australia to Alberta are emerging as key front-line players in the climate fight. It would have been appropriate to offer a capsule bio of, say, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, one of the pivotal figures in the battle (and by the way, a federal court has now decided that the Standing Rock Sioux were correct that the environmental impact studies for the project were woefully deficient).

The New Map

He's equally dismissive of the massive fossil fuel divestment campaign and other activist movements. That is a shame, because they've helped reshape the energy debate. In fact, they're one half a pincers beginning to close on the fossil fuel industry – the other is the rapid development of cheap renewable power, which is causing many to rethink thoroughly the decades to come. In August, after Yergin’s book had gone to press, BP became the first of the oil supermajors to capitulate to this new reality: It announced plans to cut oil and gas production 30 per cent to 40 per cent this decade and reallocate assets toward clean power.

Yergin knows that change like this is coming someday, but he's convinced that it will take a very long time. The “planning case” from his international consulting firm predicts that world oil demand won't peak until the 2030s, but many other analysts disagree. Several recent studies say peak demand may already have occurred in 2019 – the latest (from the Norwegian forecasters DNV GL) came in mid-September, alongside news of the massive western fires. Yergin thinks that growth in plastics will boost oil demand even if electric vehicles cut the gasoline market – and indeed, the New York Times recently obtained emails showing the oil lobby trying to undercut African anti-litter laws so they could grow the use of plastic bags. But more recent analyses show that even growth in plastics has begun to slow.

Above all, the plummeting cost of solar and wind is reshaping the energy future, and here Yergin’s analysis is undermined by increasingly obsolete arguments about how hard it is to store power when the sun isn't shining; electric grids are coping fine with ever-larger shares of renewable energy. They're not, however, coping well with climate change: Drooping wires in record heat are responsible for many of the blazes now charring the west. Change clearly needs to come fast, and Yergin is so embedded in old patterns of thought that he can’t quite recognise the urgency. Even history bends to physics.

The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, By Daniel Yergin. Allen Lane. £25

McKibben, the author most recently of  ‘Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? is the founder of the global climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.

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