And it’s the story of the moment, too. The most crucial part of this account comes when Yergin steps away from history and addresses the very pressing and immediate challenges that threaten to end the fossil-fuel age that has shaped our economic life for more than a century.
One key issue is peak oil, the idea that we’re running out of petroleum. The notion, now many decades old, originated with the geologist M. King Hubbert, who used a series of mathematical models to show that U.S. oil production would peak in the late 1960s. He was right in this prediction (though Yergin points out that he dramatically underestimated how much oil would be extracted by the time production peaked), which has led many to adapt his curves to global oil supplies. You’ve heard the predictions, some of them echoed by some of the most prominent energy economists and leaders: The supply of oil has reached its zenith and will now decline. Yergin says this won’t happen, for two reasons. One is that as prices rise and technologies improve, it becomes profitable to drain more oil from existing wells. The other, more important, is that with higher prices we’re able to go after brand-new sources of oil and gas, which would have been economically off-limits in earlier times. We call these new sources “unconventional” — super-deep-water drilling, the fracking of huge swaths of the countryside and the exploiting of deposits like Alberta’s tar sands. “With the passage of time,” Yergin says, “the unconventionals become, in all of their variety, one of the pillars of the world’s future petroleum supply. And they help explain why the plateau continues to recede into the horizon.”
Yergin may well be right on this point. There’s been a huge boom in gas production from shale deposits in the Northeast, for instance (though a series of newspaper stories indicates that the drilling companies may be grossly overstating the size of their reserves). If Yergin is correct, it is all the more important that he tackle the implications for global warming. But he goes lightly on this. If we took declining supplies of conventional fossil fuel as a signal to make the rapid transition to renewable energy, we might be able to slow the onset of climate change. If, instead, we take them as a signal to seek out these unconventional supplies, then we may have very little chance. As NASA’s James Hansen, our foremost climate scientist, said earlier this year, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and “if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize climate.” If instead we pursue the rapid development of, say, Canadian tar sands, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” (Hansen demonstrated the conviction with which he holds the latter view by getting arrested outside the White House in August while taking part in mass civil disobedience aimed at blocking a major new pipeline to those tar sands, a protest in which I also participated.)
Yergin provides a book-within-a-book history of the development of global-warming science, going back to 1856 and British physicist John Tyndall examining the glaciers of Switzerland. This has been done many times, and it is here that Yergin’s volume proves disappointing. Yergin implies that Hansen and others have been alarmist about climate change, but in fact they and others have, if anything, understated how fast change has come. In early autumn of 2011, surveying a nation where the Southwest is in the deepest drought it’s ever experienced and the Middle Atlantic and Northeast have just recorded the greatest rainfalls in their history, it’s easy to understand why the world’s largest insurance company, Munich Re, said last December that the planetary rise in catastrophes “cannot be explained without global warming.” By contrast, Yergin doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion. He sums up his endless climate history with a page-long summary titled “The Legacy of the Glaciers,” in which he says that some people are really worried, while “others say the bounds of uncertainty are wider, the knowledge of how climate works is less developed, and that fluctuations have always characterized the weather.” That’s essentially the stand of Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, but it’s not at all what the science says.
Because he refuses to come to a conclusion one way or another on the central question, Yergin’s book ultimately doesn’t matter as much as it could have. It drifts on for another couple of hundred pages, describing what’s likely to happen if we stick to our current economic trajectory. That trajectory is likely, of course — the power of the fossil fuel industry to delay real change is large. At least through 2030, Yergin says, the energy system will look as it does right now, only bigger. If that’s true, and the scientists are right, the next set of historians will be considerably more judgmental in their big books.
is the author, most recently, of “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” He is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.