Yergin spends much of the second half of The Quest on climate change and efforts to develop and commercialize cleaner sources of energy. His descriptions of the seemingly endless international wrangling and politics over climate change are particularly fascinating. Included is a recounting of George H.W. Bush’s 1992 trip to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where he was greeted as “Darth Vader,” and of Vice President Al Gore’s 16 hours at the Kyoto conference in 1997, where he helped break a deadlock on setting binding targets to reduce emissions—an agreement that the Clinton administration then scuppered.
But it is Yergin’s recounting of President Obama’s trip to the Copenhagen conference, in 2009, that perhaps best illustrates the sausage-making aspect of international energy policy. Flying into Copenhagen for only a day and hoping to get back home before a predicted blizzard hit Washington, Obama sat through a confusing meeting before deciding he needed to speak with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. The president was at first told the Chinese leader had left the conference and then that he was “somewhere in the conference center.” After tracking the premier down in a conference room and brushing past a panicked security guard, Obama “burst into a room” where the Chinese leader was meeting with the presidents of Brazil and South Africa and the prime minister of India. After much “give-and-take,” the group, now including Obama, drafted an agreement. Unsurprisingly, the agreement was received by the larger conference group “with no great enthusiasm and indeed with some irritation on the part of many of the delegations.”
The Quest is not without flaws. The concluding sections on recent advances in the development of renewable energy, in particular, cover ground that will be very familiar to many readers. And much of it lacks the insider’s storytelling at which Yergin excels. Yet even here, Yergin has valuable insight. Knowing the unpredictable history of energy, Yergin realizes that it is far too early to declare “winners” among the alternatives to oil. And, he argues, it will likely be 2030 at the earliest before alternatives begin to play a significant role. “By 2030, overall global energy consumption may be 35 or 40 percent greater than it is today. The mix will probably not be too different from what it is today…. It is really after 2030 that the energy system could start to look quite different as the cumulative effect of innovation and technological advance makes its full impact felt.”
Such declarations will be controversial. Critics—especially those who will argue we can’t wait that long to change our energy choices—will certainly challenge the conclusion. But at least Yergin has the lessons of economics and history on his side.