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.


24 Responses to Dan Yergin’s Dilemma: Energy ‘Reality’ Vs. Climate Reality

  1. Doug Bostrom says:

    The “great revival” is the drumming on the floor of the heels of a dying person. Petroleum has grown sufficiently expensive that a lot of formerly uneconomic deposits can now be extracted at profit.

    The death rattles won’t last very long; in the continental US there are no “elephant fields” waiting to be stumbled over by wildcatters; modern exploration techniques have eliminated any chance for further surprises of that kind.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for pointing out this obvious contradiction, Joe. Yergin is not the only one who celebrates the flow of domestic oil while feigning concern over global warming. Other examples are Barack Obama, Stephen Chu, and Rex Tillerson. They are like heroin addicts who congratulate themselves for switching to weaker doses.

    The problem is that the new domestic sources include far more pollution of every kind, including CO2. This applies to oil from the Arctic, the Gulf, Tar Sands, and Bakken shale. It’s a matter of opinion whether Saudi oil is better or worse for us than oil from domestic sources.

    Yergin is showing himself to be deeply dishonest here. The only way to cure a dangerous addiction is to stop it.

  3. john atcheson says:

    If you read the concluding sentence of Yergin’s “The Prize,” you’ll learn all you need to know about this guy.

    It says something to the effect that oil has always been the prize, and it always will.

    He is so thoroughly mired in the hydrocarbon muck of the 20th Century, he can’t escape.

  4. Leif says:

    The big change will come when society realizes that it is counter productive to pollute the commons for profit.In the not to distant past it was common practice to dump chamber pots out the window. With higher population densities as the cities grew the folly led to major investments in indoor plumbing and sewers. ~1% of the GDP if I an not mistaken. (About the same investment to go green.) Does anyone think for a moment that they want to return? Those sewers were a boom to the economic foundation that I am sure few would have predicted. Society is now faced with a modern version of chamber pots, again to be addressed by society. However the exploiters to the free dumping have amassed huge profits that they do not want to see dried up. To that end they spend large sums of $$$ to convince a segment of the population that their sh*t don’t stink or if it does it is not a problem anyway. It just makes the trees grow. While the bottom of an outhouse surely is utopia to some life forms, I am not convinced mankind will find the environmental adaptation process as rewarding as the mitigation process.

  5. Artful Dodger says:

    “The Stone Age didn’t end because the World ran out of Stone”. Clean energy is already more attractive to everyone on Earth, except fossil business.

    Just say no. Stop buying their poison. Whether in the Media or at the Gas Pump. It really is up to you to demand better. And Business always responds to meet Demand.

  6. MorinMoss says:

    If James Hansen is correct, scenarios above 450ppm would mean that we are making heavy use of unconventional oil & gas or, worse still, Old King Coal.

    If it’s coal and we’re not filtering out particulates or sequestering CO2, the push and pull between higher CO2 forcing and the attendant feedbacks, along with the aerosols, black carbon and particulate pollution would make for wild, chaotic weather extremes such as we’ve never seen, especially if CO2 crosses 550 PPM

  7. The elephants in the room are starting to stampede…they are global warming, population and destabilizing economies… Yergin’s talk of Energy and Security seems to be barely the beginning of the problems.

    Faint praise.

  8. Chris Winter says:

    “Yet while Yergin’s book has 6 chapters — 100 full pages (!) — devoted to climate science and policy, this op-ed is utterly silent on the energy issue of the century…”

    Which prompts a question for further research: How many self-described conservatives have a habit of reading non-fiction books like The Quest or, for that matter, like the one I just finished: RUN TO FAILURE: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster by Abraham Lustgarten.

    At the end of its Postscript, the latter book notes that the Obama administration is preparing to allow expanded drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. The non-profit agency responsible for handling any spills there is Alaska Clean Seas. In a 2010 interview, a senior manager said the agency can only handle a spill of 5,000 barrels per day. But Dan Seamount, Alaska’s oil and gas commissioner, said that wells in the Beaufort Sea could produce as much as 40,000 barrels per day.

    RUN TO FAILURE ends with these words: “Many things, it seems, haven’t changed at all.”

  9. David Lewis says:

    “America’s most influential energy pundit”, as this NYTimes review has it, obviously, has nothing to offer anyone who is thinking about the energy problems we face, because, to be “America’s most influential energy pundit” at a time when America continues to refuse to face the energy problems it has is to be the high priest of those who believe America can continue to deny its energy problems indefinitely. He’s not that much different that the clowns in North Carolina who came up with that proposed law mandating state authorities to ignore what scientists have discovered about sea level rise.

  10. Tim Weiskel says:

    Good analysis, Joe. Several of us have been disappointed in Danny’s collapse of perspective over the last several years. He was probably the “brightest of the best” when he graduated from Yale in the Class of 1968. As an undergraduate he distinguished himself as a major writer and journalist, founding “The New Journal” on campus before his senior year. Of course it is true that George W. also graduated in the Class of 1968 from Yale, but there were many others in that year who went on to transcend the narrow myopia of George and Danny on the most pressing problems confronting humanity for their generation. The tragic myopia of those who were considered the best and the brightest is hard to account for, since they had access to the best educational facilities in the world at the time. Nonetheless, we are now saddled with the legacy of their short-sightedness and greed, and generations yet to come will be paying dearly for their blindness.

  11. with the doves says:

    Yergin is, as ever, essentially a spokesperson for oil. Unfortunately he is viewed as something of a non-partisan expert.

    It would be interesting to know where the funding for his company, IHS CERA, comes from.

  12. Chris says:

    which stabilizes around 2°C (236°F) above preindustrial levels.

    236°F! I hope that’s a typo :-)

  13. h4x354x0r says:

    I’m a “business-class” bicyclist; I’ve displaced over 150,000 car miles on a bike so far, saved over 10,000 gallons of gasoline, not emitted some 20+ tons of carbon. I did that all by myself, and I’m still pedaling strong.

    Who’s with me? Oh, wait, I think a see the problem…

    Fact is, if you’re demanding energy from others, you’re in a poor position to dictate just what kind of energy you are given.

    Conservation works. It’s the cheapest, quickest-to-implement, lowest-hanging fruit of energy independence. Ironically, it’s pretty much the last thing anyone will consider. People will almost always choose slow poison over immediate deprivation. Change *THAT* mindset, and we’ll get somewhere.

    As for longer-range considerations, solar irradiance is the ONLY single source of energy that can meet 100% of US energy needs. The continental US gets about 190,000 ExoJoules (EJ) of solar irradiance per year at the surface. We currently use about 90 EJ per year. At current solar panel efficiency rates, we would have to cover 4-5% of the surface of the US to meet 100% of our energy needs.

    Oil and Gas – “fossil fuels” – are the leftover energy from millions of years of solar irradiance, turned into biomass, and sequestered. It reminds me of the story about the Aoral Rods in the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We are burning about 500 years worth of ancient biomass production, driven by solar irradiance, every year. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell our consumption rate is even remotely sustainable.

    This article is spot-on, in that converting to ANY other source of energy is a dead-end. We’ve got so solve some serious problems relating to storage and transport of electrical energy, but no other form of energy has even the slightest hope of still being there for humanity a couple thousand years from now. If we’ve got to convert, we might as well do it right the first time, so our children don’t just have to do it all over again.

    As for Yergin himself, I’m sure he’d be delighted to go work in Canada’s tar sands fields to show how serious he is about this. No?

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The dying person is humanity. For the genocidaires to merely tack the cant of ‘in an environmentally sensitive way’ onto their plans to utterly transform the planet to our species’ detriment is a cynical Big Lie. All that counts for these assassins of our species is money, for them, to spend in their lifetimes.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Or heroin- no make that speed- addicts who promise to mug you in a ‘caring and sharing’ manner.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The kakistocrats who rule the West, and the world, regard hydrocarbons as ‘the greatest material prize in human history’. And Rightists are the grossest materialists imaginable. Concepts like biodiversity, ecological sustainability and climate stability are held in utter contempt by these creatures because they see no way in which to make money from them. And capitalist destructiveness is a moral and spiritual race to the bottom, because each rare specimen who develops a moral conscience, becomes truly human, and abjures the destruction of his own descendants in pursuit of money, is quickly replaced by some new recruit, generally of any even more pernicious type.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In market fundamentalist capitalist states, ‘society’ is the ruling oligarchy. The other 99.9% are totally and absolutely irrelevant.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see’. The Triumph of the Will.

  19. Mike Roddy says:

    Yale has never been anything but a holding pen for the wealthy class. Scholarship from there tends to have a pompous, establishment aura, which is why our brightest minds would rather teach elsewhere. Yergin is a perfect example of a Yalie, and is not so different from W.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m a ‘walking-class hero’-a pedestrian.

  21. Ken Barrows says:

    If Yergin is right about increases in future oil and gas production, that will be a first for him.

  22. rtcdmc says:

    I’m going to offer a couple of points which I’m sure will be unpopular. First, a transition from coal to natural gas would be a net positive from an emissions standpoint. PM and heavy metals reductions alone justify the change. Second a shift in strategy is needed. If fossil fuels are going to be more abundant than forecasted, a 1% tax should be assigned. The proceeds of that tax should be devoted to renewable installations. Taxes on abundance are less controversial. This would begin to change the facts on the ground, through an incremental approach.

  23. Chris Winter says:

    That’s quite a review by Dwight Garner. It has some good points; it did make me want to read the book. But I got a chuckle out of this:

    “This is a very large and not overly elegant book; committing to it is like committing to a marriage, or to a car lease, or to climbing Everest. Base camps will periodically need to be established on this 804-page mountain. Sherpas — perhaps in the form of your children, delivering sustaining tea and coffee and rum — will be required. Nearing the summit you may find the dead bodies of those who did not make it all the way.”

  24. p Gottschalk says:

    Forget all of Yergin’s economics of the energy market. he was wrong 45 years ago and he is wrong now. he biggest point that needs to be made is why do the deniers want to win the argument. if the climate changers win the argument and there is no climate change all that happens is jobs are made in green energy, the US gets out of the volatile Mideast region and we have a better enviornment. But if the deniers win the argument and there is no climate change all the listed positives are lost. And if the deniers win and there is climate change humanity loses. So what are the gains of winning the argument.