24 Responses to Dan Yergin’s Dilemma: Energy ‘Reality’ Vs. Climate Reality
Another day, another piece in the New York Times ignoring climate science by someone who knows better.
This time it’s Daniel Yergin, author of The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World and chair of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Yergin piece, “America’s New Energy Reality,” is a big wet kiss to oil and gas, which would be a mixed metaphor if America’s — and Yergin’s — hydrocarbon-philia was not a self-destructive relationship (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
Yet while Yergin’s book has 6 chapter — 100 full pages (!) — devoted to climate science and policy, this op-ed is utterly silent on the energy issue of the century, which is also the human issue of the millennium. He concludes:
America’s new story for energy is still unfolding. It includes the continuing development and expansion of renewables and increased energy efficiency, both of which will be essential to our future energy mix. But what is striking is this great revival in oil and gas production in the United States, with wide impacts on jobs, economic development and the competitiveness of American industry. This new reality requires a new way of thinking and talking about America’s improving energy position and how to facilitate this growth in an environmentally sound way — recognizing the considerable benefits this will bring in an era of economic uncertainty.
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.
Producing more oil is transparently incompatible with serious climate action. Producing more gas is only compatible with climate action over a very short period of time, maybe a decade, to quickly replace most of U.S. coal — and even then you must simultaneously have an aggressive strategy to reduce methane leaks along with a serious and rising carbon price to make sure the gas is replacing coal 1-for-1 and not renewables (see “Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere Absent A Carbon Price AND Strong Standards To Reduce Methane Leakage“).
After 2020, American would need to then replace the gas with carbon-free power over two or at most three decades, which of course would render much of the original investment in gas infrastructure wasteful, if not counterproductive.
To be clear, since Yergin isn’t clear (either here or in his book), an 80% to 95% reduction vs. 1990 levels is the target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes the rich countries (Annex I) should adopt if the goal is to stabilize at 450 ppm CO2-eq, which stabilizes around 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels. I discussed the science underlying this at length three years ago. Here’s the key chart from the full Working Group III report (Box 13.7, page 776):
A 60% reduction by 2050 gets you 550 ppm CO2-equivalent, which is about 450 ppm CO2 (because of the warming from the other greenhouse gases). That would mean ultimately stabilizing at 3°C (5.4°F) above preindustrial levels using the “best estimate” of climate sensitivity — see the IPCC’s Synthesis Report “Summary for Policymakers” (Table SPM.6).
And 3C warming is likely to be catastrophic — assuming that it is even stable and doesn’t trigger amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks, such as a melting tundra — in terms of turning large parts of the habitable and arable land of the world into Dust Bowls just when we need to feed another 2 or 3 billion people and in terms of ultimate levels of warming and sea level rise (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm”).
But hey, no worries, it’ll create thousands of unsustainable jobs in the short term, so let’s throw a party. Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we … well, you know how it turns out.
The point is, that if you want to listen to scientists and preserve a livable climate and minimizes to billions of people, then you want to stay as close to 2°C total warming as possible. To cut U.S. CO2 emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2100, you won’t be using more gas than you are today. You’ll be using less.
Although Yergin spends 100 pages in his book on climate, he ends his discussion with the decisiveness of an eight-armed economist:
[Climate change] has also become the focus of policy and politicians. The general objective is to keep concentration from going over 450 parts per million [of CO2 in the air] in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. As it is, some warn that rising carbon levels may already hold out the risk of an “iceless world” in that humanity is heading toward an ice list age.
Others say but the bounds of uncertainty are wider, the knowledge of how climate works is less developed, and that fluctuations always characterize the weather. Some also believe that the target of 450 parts per million is unrealistic….
Thanks for clearing that up, Dan. A greater mystery may be why does Yergin devote six chapters to making clear that the science is real and that serious people believe we must take action, but then refuse to draw any meaningful conclusions?
Seth Kaplan, Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation offered this view in his review of Yergin’s book:
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….
Until well-informed centrists like Yergin confront the dilemma, they are essentially failing humanity in its time of greatest need to hear the truth from across the political spectrum.