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Review of Yergin's "The New Map"

Daniel Yergin is supposed to be required reading for everyone interested in energy. This specialist has made a name for himself not just through his energy consultancy company, but also through two blockbuster books on global energy politics: The Prize (1992) and The Quest (2011). About a year ago he released The New Map, which feels like a boy band pumping out their Nth album---there’s nothing groundbreaking in it, but they know it’s guaranteed to pull in some money and keep their name relevant.

There is a lot of good raw information as well as some interesting stories in the book. But I felt tense while reading much of it, without being able to put my finger on why. Eventually I realized what was bothering me.

The problem is that Yergin plays an insidious trick on his audience: He loves attaching rigorous numerical figures and arguments to fossil fuel production, but refrains from doing so for anything related to climate change.

This subconsciously gives the impression that the fossil fuel supporters are Very Serious Professionals, while those advocating a fast energy transition are irrational and lost in the clouds. Many readers won’t grasp that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Whenever he broaches climate change Yergin uses vague platitudes, not bothering with numerical figures for carbon budgets or climate-induced GDP reduction or projected cost reductions in renewables. Or worse, he discusses climate change through the prism of what some (supposedly) irrational activists have done. But when discussing the oil production targets of OPEC or the economic trends in Russia’s GDP, he dives into hard numbers. Yergin thinks that being pro-fossil is the only informed position, whereas to demand rapid government action on decarbonization (which is what serious numerical analyses show is both achievable and necessary) is akin to demanding world peace.

One example is Yergin’s discussion of electric vehicles. He cites the pejorative term EEVs: “emissions elsewhere vehicles,” perpetuating the (false) idea that EVs emit just as much as gasoline cars, if the electricity source is dirty. Yet he doesn’t mention (perhaps doesn’t know?) why this is an entirely invalid argument. For the record: First, there are very few places in the developed world where electricity is more carbon-intensive than gasoline---at this point EVs are an immediate win almost everywhere. Even in American states that get the majority of their electricity from coal (e.g. Kentucky and even West Virginia [link]), the current electricity mix still leads to EVs being lower-emission than gasoline.

Second, even in the places where EVs are inferior for emissions (perhaps some parts of India), coal is dying anyway, and so over the lifetime of the vehicle it will emit less than a gasoline car. I don’t know whether Yergin simply isn’t aware of these basic facts or if he’s deliberately omitting them.

I could go on. For example, I’m not sure Yergin ever mentions the projected quantity of crop failures and other economic damages (though he does include an embarrassingly confused section about GHG emissions). That is a remarkable omission, considering how often he uses numerical figures---as he should---to discuss how projected oil revenues and GDP affect the behavior of politicians. Notably, he does not extend this same courtesy to climate activists. Namely, while politicians are shown to be rationally motivated by economics, he never explains activists’ actions in terms of the quantitative economic damage that they are working to prevent.

Everywhere in the book, you’ll find a coy dismissal of the (expert-backed) view that fossil fuel production needs to quickly ramp down. When a new gas field is discovered in the Mediterranean, Yergin thinks the enlightened view is to ignore emissions entirely and discuss only the potential profits and technical hurdles. But when GreenPeace makes moderate disruptions so that the politicians will address the climate crisis, they are irrational hippies.

It is likely that Yergin himself doesn’t understand why it’s deceitful to present the energy “map” in the way he does. But he insists on this primary deceit: preserving the fossil fuel status quo is rational, while following widely accepted scientific and economic analyses is not. Other than literal climate denial, this sneaky framing is the most dangerous lie in the political discourse.


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