Energy “Realism” Is Climate Fatalism

Americans may not want to hear this, but it might be best if the US is not the country leading the world through the climate crisis.

The planet is in peril, and things just got worse. It may seem alarmist to make such a claim when nearly all major countries have recently publicized plans to green their economies.1 The euphoria engendered by these announcements might be short-lived, however, because an explosive cocktail of global developments—and, moreover, the way they are being framed—threaten to delay effective climate action. Current geopolitical realignments, along with the global economic downturn resulting from COVID-19, bolster a familiar but narrow realist narrative: allegedly, the main engine of the global order is intense competition between nation-states to secure their interests. This realist account seems to spread quickly, just like a tantalizing rumor. Believing the world is driven only by national competition crowds out rival possibilist thinking in which actors, practices, interests, and geography can be reimagined in order to immediately respond to the greatest challenge for the global collective.

Ignoring the great stakes of the climate challenge, famed energy writer Daniel Yergin chooses to use his expertise and platform to ardently detail the obstacles that will block the replacement of fossil fuels. Taking a posture of realism, he declares: “While energy transition has become a pervasive theme all around the world, disagreement rages, both within countries and among them, on the nature of the transition: how it unfolds, how long it takes, and who pays.”

Yergin’s new book, The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, is a primer in how old prejudices—dressed up as “realism”—can derail our last-ditch efforts to save the planet. A world order in disarray—in which nation-states increasingly vie to maximize their own power—provides an ideal opening for Yergin to reassert his familiar argument: the world will, and should, continue to depend on fossil fuels. By creating “maps” of discord in geopolitics, energy, competition, and national interests, The New Map purports to offer an objective description of the current state of affairs from which to project future outcomes.

In reality, Yergin’s book does nothing more than defend the status quo ante, which has for too long been saturated by fossil-fuel interests. After 430 pages, the book’s main takeaway, not surprisingly, is that although the much-touted energy transition may have begun, it is still decades away. People concerned about mitigating climate change will find this book much like an unsatisfying sandwich: a tiny smear of jam pressed between two thick slices of stale bread.

Yergin’s lack of faith in energy alternatives is yoked to a similar disbelief in political alternatives. The book fixates on US-China bipolar competition. Viewing the world through a bipolar lens (in which the US is one of the two titans) represents a uniquely American perspective—a Made in America perspective—that fails to recognize that multilateralism has many adherents.

More tellingly American is that Yergin entirely overlooks the European Union, one of the three largest economies in the world. It is the US’s most powerful ally and closest partner. Even so, America’s ability to project a narrative of contention and competition is strong. Europe, however,  is already providing a concrete alternative to American exceptionalism or realism by steadfastly defending multilateralism and rules-based solutions to global problems.

Shockingly, Yergin’s narrative fails to reckon with the incontrovertible reality that the climate crisis requires an immediate response. Even worse, he minimizes effective multilateral action while stoking a sense of futility. Nowhere does he attempt to offer guidance out of the climate catastrophe. It might be that Yergin thinks such guidance is impossible, but his doomsday dialectic—masquerading as realism—ensures that impossibility.

In truth, the realist frame that is the dominant Made in America narrative is ill-equipped for the complexity of this global challenge. It distracts from forging a concrete plan with as much consensus as possible; it unravels the bonds of interdependence that are both real and necessary; and it collapses all relations into a competitive and adversarial logic that is counterproductive. More dangerously, it has already drawn decarbonization and digitalization into a vortex of unrelenting bipolar competition, putting the planet in even greater peril.

Although Americans may not want to hear this, it might be best if the U.S. is not the country leading the world through the climate crisis; it does not need to be.

Increasingly, in defiance of globalization, the rhetoric of world order is framed by renationalizing narratives. These narratives—of which Yergin’s is but one, though perhaps one of the most pernicious—inform the policies that fracture networks of interdependence in the name of greater autonomy. Still, the logic of retrenchment for the sake of national interests, and pitting one country against the others in the process, demonstrates a glaring lack of appreciation for what the pandemic has allowed us all to fully experience: what it means to live on “spaceship Earth.”

If the story sounds eerily familiar, it is because it contains crumbs of truth. Its argument, unfortunately, is an easy sell, given our conditioning to accept national interests as solipsistic and the global order as hierarchical.

For example, Yergin’s narrow focus on a protracted struggle between the US and China allows him to blithely brush past the fact that conditions have dramatically changed. In fact, friends, allies, and competitors of the US are increasingly showing reluctance to take sides. China is too big to oppose. It is already the world’s second-largest economy and is expected to be first in just a few years. For the developing world, moreover, the PRC is a welcome alternative source of investment, which comes without caveats for adherence to Western norms and values in order to gain access to finance.

China has fundamentally altered the geopolitical map by turning global attention squarely toward Asia and the PRC’s growing networks of trade and influence in both the developing and developed worlds. In response, for four years the Trump administration aggressively sold a narrative of bipolar competition on the strength of America’s newfound energy position. China was labeled enemy number one not only domestically but also in the global order. The US began a face-off against China over industrial innovation, the tech imperium, economy and trade, and security and alliances, as well as ideological norms and values. Although the administration changed and America now seeks to rekindle its global partnerships, under President Joe Biden, the PRC remains a strategic and systemic adversary.

Faithfully mirroring this “America First bipolarism,” Yergin devotes a number of chapters to geopolitics; he especially attends to the ways that the shale revolution transformed the energy map once the US became an energy baron and strengthened its economic and geopolitical power over competitors and allies. He then artfully scratches the scab of America’s anxious preoccupation with China’s spectacular economic rise and its declared intent to reshape the global order.

Similarly to Yergin, the Biden administration—in order to seize the climate-conscious moment and mobilize the public—is tightly wrapping its green deal in the American flag. Biden speaks of himself as the climate president: launching a new green industrial revolution to create jobs at home; addressing issues of climate justice first domestically, then fusing them internationally. He hosted a Leaders Summit on Climate on Earth Day, in April. The intent was to rally global support and to underscore that, after a four-year absence, America had returned to the world stage to lead the response to the great challenges of our time.

In the same breath, however, Biden’s administration made the climate emergency a key item in the competition between the US and the PRC. Biden’s new rhetoric seeks to sow doubt about China’s commitment to the climate fight. China is singled out, emphatically asked to become transparent and specific about the policies that will meet its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. This form of engagement, rather than offering some respite from the ongoing antagonism, further exacerbates it.

Biden’s new realist frame acknowledges climate change as a threat to national interests. But it also seeks to harness nationalism to drive action on the climate front. This constitutes a shift from Barack Obama’s compartmentalization approach, which saw climate as an area in which to build cooperation and trust with the PRC and to provide joint global leadership. It is true that, under Obama, the push to decarbonize was peppered with doses of nationalist rhetoric; these were meant to create domestic buy-in for greening the US economy and to weaken the opposition of proponents of fossil-fuel interests. The US, however, was then still eager to find concrete ways to engage in good faith with China. Climate was thus carved out as an area of constructive cooperation and trust building, even though a bipolar setup for global power sharing was being purposely created.


The Big Picture: Building a Climate Coalition

By Robert O. Keohane

The enthusiasm and bravado with which the US is now embracing the climate project, while at first glance encouraging, is in many ways alarming. This expanded realist frame not only is narrow but also might prove disastrous, should climate be sacrificed at the altar of geopolitical confrontation.

Moreover, there are still contending forces pushing for and against the domestic green agenda. Within the US, consensus about what should constitute a national climate response has not been reached, a reminder that the current political resolve might weaken within two years if Congress changes hands. What has changed, however, is that business and finance now see an opportunity to grow new sectors of the economy and thus reap excellent returns on investment, especially in the electrification of transport.

Pushback within the US is, however, never far behind. Like clockwork, the fossil-fuel industry has gone on the attack, gearing up for a full-fledged confrontation. Moreover, America continues to be the world’s number one oil and gas producer. Will the US be able or willing to relinquish what had been widely viewed as an important energy and geopolitical advantage?

It remains to be seen, therefore, if the new administration will actually achieve the dramatic shift that it has announced. Instead, Biden’s administration might end up serving as an unwitting Trojan horse that delays the global decarbonization project by continuing lucrative oil and natural-gas exports. The mixed messages, internal disputes, and delays provoked by a wavering US strengthen Yergin’s narrative of determinism, which deems it impossible to achieve an energy transition within the timeline critical for deciding the fate of the planet.

Is Yergin’s the only available roadmap? It is certainly clearly marked, if one is looking for a superhighway on which to recklessly speed over the precipice. But there are also other paths, less well trodden, that take more coordination and are more sensible.

Although Americans may not want to hear this, it might be best if the US is not the country leading the world through the climate crisis; it does not need to be. It can certainly decarbonize and green its economy, innovate, and mobilize both the public and private sectors to spearhead the unprecedented changes that will be required to avert a planetary catastrophe. It can also, in time, develop its normative frame for planetary stewardship and environmental justice. All these actions will be welcomed by the world. The blinding brightness of the Made in America perspective, however, with its rivalries and contentions, attracts competitors and allies like moths to the flame, consuming time, resources, and the global will to pursue inclusive broad-based solutions. Moreover, not leading does not in any way suggest that the US withdraw from the process of engagement and goal setting. A more neutral, less polarized party would be better equipped to coordinate the effort, de-escalate tensions, and keep stakeholders engaged and transparent about their contributions and plans in response to the climate crisis.

The EU has a temperament and institutional capacity much more suited to the task. It is also America’s friend and ally. Though omitted in Yergin’s new map, Europe is a mature power, a defender of global institutions and multilateralism, and has an economy comparable to those of China and the US. Moreover, it is not locked in a contest for primacy. Time and again, it has shown resilience and endurance. It has, moreover, used its regulatory power to reach global understandings and facilitate arrangements that help build transparency and common rules for all.

Yergin’s deafening silence about Europe is presumably a product of his America-centered thinking, because the EU is emphatically resisting the narrative of bipolar competition as the sole blueprint for the global order. Considering itself the “most advanced multilateral project in history,” the EU aims to be the “centre of gravity of the work to promote and protect multilateralism globally,” especially in the attempts to combat climate change.

The EU is actively supporting and engaging in discussions to reform existing institutions such as the UN, the WTO, and the Council of Europe instead of letting them remain static and wither into irrelevance. Moreover, through its “variable geometry multilateralism” it recognizes that there are no longer fixed sets of “like-minded” countries that see eye to eye on all issues. In Europe’s view, it can stay true to its values and principles and pursue “like-minded partnering” to form the most relevant multilayer group possible when dealing with any specific issue. It is open to working with a range of stakeholders and supports “regional multilateralism.” The flexibility and inclusiveness through which the EU is approaching global governance will be key assets in fostering the new geopolitics that the current times require.

Notwithstanding its own troubled history, today’s EU has made some of the most concrete progress on the decarbonization of its economy, while also weaving environmental regulation into all spheres of its economic and social policies. It is not interested in living in a new bipolar world that also echoes what other countries would prefer.

Even though Europe has sought to build some industrial capacity closer to home, it has not foregone globalization or interdependence. This is why it finalized a trade deal with China at the end of December 2020, just after Asia-Pacific countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement in November 2020. The EU created the European Battery Alliance in 2017 to build resilience in the face of electric vehicle (EV) competition but has attracted non-EU companies to its shores, thus both diversifying and strengthening global supply chains.

While planning for the fourth industrial revolution and the digitalization of the global economy, the EU is actively seeking to set global standards and norms for ethical, secure, and cutting-edge AI and digital connectivity. Moreover, while welcoming Biden’s election and rekindling its historic relations with the US, which had unraveled under the Trump administration, it has communicated that it envisions a forward-looking transatlantic agenda for global cooperation reflecting strong multilateral action and prioritization of cooperation for the protection of the planet.

The EU has kept the climate negotiations moving forward; indeed, Paris was a milestone for a global understanding of what is at stake. It maintains a complex and deep network of relationships with developing nations and recognizes that the world has changed. The old colonial model of carving up regions to manage competition has ended. Developing countries now have other options and often prefer to work with China. This is why a new framework of cooperation is necessary and a global response to the climate crisis can facilitate its construction.


All Tomorrow’s Warnings

By Rob Nixon

First, it is necessary to take a step back. Lowering the realist volume will allow the world the space for new possibilist thinking, moving away from Yergin’s map of conflict and reimagining a map in which the climate crisis is the defining problem of the global commons.

Yergin’s analysis rests on mapping out and layering conflicting interests on top of one another, in a way that makes it impossible to see clearly in order to navigate. A reconfigured map that depicts all the individual actors together forming part of a whole corresponds more faithfully to the challenges ahead.

These challenges can best be met with a new vision that recognizes interdependence and a new geopolitics that includes the aspirations of both the developing and the developed world. The response to the climate crisis must not become a starting pistol for a new scramble: for inputs, “geopolitically engineered” supply chains, the building up of tech and knowledge barriers, more exclusions and inequities that engender securitized solutions to global challenges.

In the end, it’s not enough just to debate which kind of fuel to put in whose tank. We also first have to choose where we all are headed.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. At the end of 2019, the EU announced a Green Deal to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. In September 2020, China committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060; Japan and Korea by 2050. The US under Biden, moreover, rejoined the Paris Accord and declared its ambition for net-zero emissions, economywide, no later than 2050.
Featured Image: Screenshot from the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by President Biden on Earth Day 2021 and attended by 40 world leaders. Source: US State Department