Energy Transitions and International Cooperation in the 20th Century

Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung/Leibniz-Centre for Contemporary History
PD Dr. Rüdiger Graf / PD Dr. Henning Türk, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung / Leibniz-Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam
04.06.2020 - 06.06.2020
Türk, Henning

Human societies have always depended on the use of energy, but the forms of energy they have primarily used have changed over time. While some historians describe the modern era as a hydrocarbon age, there are political analysts and energy specialists who currently look beyond coal, gas, and oil advocating an Energiewende, an “energy turnaround or transition.” The 20th century in particular witnessed some dramatic energy transitions. Coal, which had been the dominant energy resource in the first two thirds of the century, was increasingly replaced by oil after the Second World War. Due to expectations of future oil scarcity and the experience of the first oil crisis in 1973/74, however, experts criticized the world’s growing dependence on oil and many governments sought to diversify their energy sectors by developing nuclear energy, which became an important factor in power generation. But, nuclear energy did not live up to its initial promises and, as environmental concerns have grown, renewable energies have been emerging as serious competitors to the hydrocarbons since the 1990s.
In recent years a growing body of energy historiography has analyzed both the causes and consequences of these energy transitions. Authors such as Vaclav Smil have identified the technological triggers of energy transitions, while others such as Timothy Mitchell have examined how the energy basis of societies influenced the development of political systems. Another group of scholars has scrutinized the impact of energy transitions on society. While there is also a large body of literature on the effects of energy on international politics, alliances and conflicts, so far there has not been a systematic discussion of the connections between energy transitions and international cooperation. Yet, mainly in the second half of the 20th century, energy sources have often been at the core of international institution building. Organizations like the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) were founded to regulate or coordinate the cooperation of countries dealing with different forms of energy. Even organizations with broader agendas, like the United Nations (UN) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), were concerned with the security of energy supplies.
The international conference at the Leibniz-Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF) aims to fill this gap. Taking a broad view of the 20th century, the conference will combine research on energy transitions with research on international cooperation. We are seeking to address the following questions: How did energy transitions trigger the founding of new international organizations? What did different members expect from their collaboration in these organizations? How did international organizations try to influence energy transitions? How did international organizations develop legal frameworks for new forms of energy? How did broader international processes, like the Cold War and its ending, affect political cooperation in the realm of energy? What role did transnational organizations like the World Energy Council play in shaping energy transitions? Was the wave of international institution building in the second half of the 20th century also a consequence of an increasingly globalized energy economy that mainly depended on oil? And, if that was the case, will the increasing use of more local renewable forms of energy have an effect on the stability of these international institutions? In discussing these questions, the conference will aim to deepen our understanding of both energy transitions and the evolution of the international system in the 20th century.
If you are interested, please, send an abstract of the proposed paper (max. 2000 characters) and a short CV by October 6, 2019, to and Participants will be notified by the end of October.


Henning Türk

Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam
Am Neuen Markt 1, 14467 Potsdam

Energy Transitions and International Cooperation in the 20th Century, 04.06.2020 – 06.06.2020 Potsdam, in: H-Soz-Kult, 04.09.2019, <>.