Dustin Yellin, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist whose intricate 3D photomontages adorn the likes of New York’s Lincoln Center, wants to draw your gaze to climate change. Not in a subtle way, either. He plans to stand an oil supertanker on its end in the ground—a structure soaring 1,000 feet into the air.

The Bridge, as Yellin dubs it, would repurpose a piece of energy infrastructure as a ready-made artwork, complete with elevators and a viewing platform for visitors, capturing the sheer scale of our energy system. The difficulty of hoisting thousands of tons of steel into the air would itself symbolize the monumental challenge of retooling our hydrocarbon-fueled civilization in the face of climate change.

The world depends on coal, oil, and natural gas for about four-fifths of its energy—just as it did when I was a boy. Back then, fears shaped by the 1970s centered on what would happen when our vital fuels ran out.

Our actual energy crisis turns out to be one of abundance, not scarcity. We’ve burned 1 trillion barrels of oil since 1980, yet global reserves are almost three times bigger. Natural gas is so plentiful that producers in Texas have been burning it off or even paying customers to take it off their hands. As for coal, the only thing many mines have run out of is jobs.

Carbon emissions are similarly inexhaustible, reaching a record last year. Abstract fears of “global warming” from the ’80s have morphed into the present danger of climate change. Rather than running out of hydrocarbons, we’re running out of time to deal with their pollution.

Our species struggles to grasp gradual change. Tell people the gas pumps have run dry, and they focus in an instant. Tell people their cars produce an invisible gas that will engender biblical droughts and floods—not necessarily where they live—and their attention drifts. Hence Yellin’s skyscraper-size exclamation point.

Similarly, it’s hard for us to conceive of the end of the hydrocarbon era. And yet financial markets appear to be ahead of us on this.

This summer the energy sector’s weighting in the S&P 500 fell below 5%, lower than at any time in the past four decades. That’s quite a show of disdain for a set of giant companies raking in almost $3 billion in revenue every day.
The most recent boom and bust ruined the industry’s reputation with many investors. News flash: This isn’t the first time that’s happened. In the past, though, the ubiquity of fossil fuels preordained that consumption (and prices) would eventually rise and tempt investors back.

Now at least some of them worry that a new deep-water field might end up as a stranded asset in a little changed or shrinking market. Oil majors are deserting prior strongholds, such as Norway’s frigid waters, and going all in on U.S. shale basins, which can be developed in months instead of years. BP Plc’s head of strategy acknowledges that some of the company’s resources “won’t see the light of day.” And members of OPEC, whose power always rested on the geological lottery of vast oil reserves, find themselves relying on the support of nonmember Russia to shore up their diminished credibility.

Hydrocarbons, dense with energy and intertwined with so much of our existing infrastructure, remain formidable incumbents. Roughly 150 years old, the oil business is still capable of sprightly disruption: Look at what hydraulic fracturing of shale hath wrought. Coal, an even older industry, isn’t quite so vigorous—global demand peaked in 2013—but nor has it gone gently into that good night, especially in Asia.

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