What Will It Take to Save the Earth?

Henrik Saxgren
A solar power plant with sunflowers in the foreground, Seville, Spain, 2007; detail of a photograph by Henrik Saxgren from his 2009 book Unintended Sculptures, which collects his images of man-made objects—paved roads, power lines, and wind turbines among them—that appear to have been abandoned to nature. It is published by Hatje Cantz.

The lights must never go out,
The music must always play.

—W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

Daniel Yergin’s 804-page The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World raises large questions:

Can today’s $65 trillion world economy be sure it will have the energy it needs to be a $130 trillion economy in two decades? And to what degree can such an economy, which depends on carbon fuels for 80 percent of its energy, move to other diverse energy sources?

Will energy sources that rely less on carbon become available fast enough, at costs low enough, to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change, to lift billions of people from poverty, and to enhance the prosperity of rich countries? Yergin provides a highly readable history that explains well how these questions arose and why they are so important and difficult. But it does little to answer them. Indeed, for Yergin, “the answers are far from obvious.”

The Quest combines four books. The first, more than half the total, provides a global history of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power from 1991 to 2011. Yergin argues that commercial competition for oil sources and markets is not now, and need not become, a contest of nations (e.g., between the United States and China); rather it is a competition between powerful multinational corporations that often try to bend nations to serve their interests. The Quest picks up at the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, where Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning eight-hundred-page history of global oil, The Prize, left off. His new book is more ambitious. Whereas The Prize focused on the oil industry, the first half of The Quest ends with the broader question of what fuels to choose.

Global electricity consumption has doubled since 1980. If it doubles again between now and 2030, as anticipated, and if it will cost $14 trillion to build the additional generating capacity to make the next doubling possible, what kinds of power plants should be built? How will they get built? What will be the consequences? These questions, too, Yergin leaves unanswered, providing instead entertaining anecdotes and quotations from historical sources and his many interviews.

The second part of The Quest traces a path from the discovery of climate change as an esoteric interest of a few scientists in the nineteenth century to the introduction of

new climate change policies…intended to make a profound transformation of the energy foundations that support the world economy—a transformation as far-reaching as that when civilization moved from wood…

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