Review by Helen Massy-Beresford
After a winter of dramatic flooding, calls for action on climate change are growing. Jeremy Leggett’s latest book, The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, couldn’t be a more timely read – or a more alarming one.
Leggett (Wolfson, 1978) has a unique perspective on the energy industry and on climate change, starting out as a researcher in the oil industry, later joining Greenpeace and then founding solar firm Solarcentury. His position as a green energy entrepreneur and investor may give some of his critics a reason to dismiss his views on climate change, but his insider perspective on the energy business leaves him ideally placed to narrate with authority the story of an industry hurtling towards crisis — and the refusal of its leaders to acknowledge it.
The Energy of Nations reads like a thriller. With the oil price rising and oil executives repeating their bullish claims, refusing to countenance the concept of peak oil — the point at which oil production reaches its maximum and begins its decline — the reader feels a mounting sense of inevitability. Leggett highlights how closely intertwined the spheres of finance and energy are, and how the same risk-taking and blinkered world view that led to the financial crisis has long been at play in the energy industry too.
As Leggett see it, there are five global and interlinked systemic risks on the horizon: oil shock, a mismatch between global supply and demand; climate shock, the potential for economic and environmental catastrophe unleashed by rising temperatures; a disastrous new financial crash; a carbon bubble, in which huge oil and gas reserves containing more carbon than can be burnt are left stranded as “unburnable carbon”; and the possibility that the much-hyped shale gas boom could be a bubble waiting to burst.
Extracts from Leggett’s diary beginning in 2004 highlight his access to key oil executives and global policy makers, adding immediacy to the narrative. The refusals, time and again, of those who could have an impact to recognise that there is a problem, are striking. Leggett, whose frustration is all-too apparent, explores the psychological reasons why those who have the power to effect change so often stick their heads in the sand – something he refers to as “the institutionalisation of denial.”
Unlike a thriller of course, The Energy of Nations has no neat, reassuring ending. Instead, Leggett tries to predict how the five systemic risks he outlines could interact – a task he acknowledges is almost impossible. He finds at least some cause for hope in the future – the readiness of clean energy technologies for explosive growth, growing people power, and the pro-social tendencies of the human mind – but, ultimately, his references to the end of the Maya civilisation and Cormac McCarthy’s desolately post-apocalyptic The Road leave the reader in no doubt. Leggett believes the road to renaissance will be a bumpy one.