Joe Biden's climate change czar.

Biden's team to fight climate change is coming into focus.
Isaac Saul Dec 16, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Some early thoughts on Biden’s climate plan, a question about federal executions and breakthroughs in the COVID-19 talks.

Photo: Charles Edward Miller from Chicago, United States

Quick hits.

  1. Congressional leaders have added another round of stimulus checks to a $900 billion relief bill that is nearing final approval. Leaders are scrapping state and local aid (a Democratic priority), as well as liability protection (a Republican priority), both of which they plan to address in future legislation.
  2. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin penned an op-ed together explaining how they came up with the bipartisan proposal that is the framework for the coronavirus relief package set to be passed by Congress.
  3. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “the Electoral College has spoken,” yesterday, officially addressing Joe Biden as president-elect and congratulating him and “our colleague” Kamala Harris on their win. McConnell also warned Republican senators not to object to the electoral college results when they get to Congress.
  4. President-elect Joe Biden nominated Mayor Pete Buttigieg to run the Department of Transportation. Buttigieg was one of the top surrogates for the Biden campaign in the final stages of the presidential race.
  5. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced the Cost of Police Misconduct Act, a new bill that aims to keep a public database that tracks police misconduct allegations and settlements at the state and federal level.

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden and climate change. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Biden has picked Gina McCarthy, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama years, as his White House climate czar. She’ll become the first person ever to coordinate a climate change plan as a member of the Cabinet. McCarthy currently serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times to protect threatened species and overturn its attempts to delay implementation of new energy efficiency standards.

McCarthy will serve as the “domestic counterpart” to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was named a special presidential envoy to oversee the United States’ role in global climate action.

During her time at the EPA, McCarthy was a crucial overseer of the Obama administration’s effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Now, she’s expected to manage the most ambitious climate change plan ever — one that President-elect Biden wants to see executed not just through the EPA, but through the Transportation, Agriculture and Treasury Departments. During her stint at the EPA, McCarthy’s signature push was the Clean Power Plan, which was blocked in court and then overturned by Trump officials.

Biden’s climate change plan calls for “net zero emissions” no later than 2050 — a goal to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions so drastically that whatever is left would be offset by forests, agriculture or even futuristic technology that takes carbon from the air. A new study from Princeton University energy experts details exactly what it’d take to hit that goal, which is a transformed nation: electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines across the country, electric stoves, and a rebuilt infrastructure to transmit and recycle electricity from all those sources. Below, we’ll examine some reactions to Biden’s climate proposals.


What the right is saying.

In the last 10 or 15 years, the right has become far more interested in prioritizing climate change — but they’re still skeptical about government interventions. In City Journal, Jonathan A. Lesser wrote about the “fairy tale” of the transition away from oil, noting that “When it costs more to supply that energy, the cost of everything else increases. The OPEC oil embargoes in the 1970s, for example, ushered in an era of double-digit inflation.

“Some environmentalists like the idea of high-cost energy,” he wrote. “They view humans as a plague on the planet and want us to minimize our environmental footprint by living like ascetics. Politicians who promise that we can power society solely with wind and solar energy are deluding themselves—or more likely you. Solar and wind are not inexpensive resources. Just look at the costs of all the offshore wind plants slated for construction from Virginia to Massachusetts — they’re far greater than the costs of electricity in wholesale power markets. In a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, I describe how electricity from the new Southfork Wind Project, to be built off Long Island, will cost $160 per megawatt hour (MWh); the average wholesale price of electricity in New England in 2019 was only $31 per MWh.

“As my Manhattan Institute colleague Mark Mills has documented, the volume of raw materials required to mass-manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries to store electricity will have a staggering environmental impact, especially overseas, where much of the materials would be mined. But for many green energy advocates, out of sight is out of mind,” he added.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently criticized “another green subsidy bust,” this one from Tonopah Solar Energy. Like Solyndra, Tonopah was a major solar project launched and funded by the Obama administration that has now gone under and could cost taxpayers as much as $510 million.

“DOE expected Crescent Dunes to produce up to 482,000 megawatt hours every year, but the plant hasn’t produced that much energy in its lifetime,” the board said. “In 2019 Crescent Dunes’s hot salt tanks suffered what partial owner SolarReserve described as ‘a catastrophic failure’ that has left the plant inoperable… The Crescent Dunes failure shows again what happens when government invests in commercial ventures beyond its expertise for political purposes. Scarce resources are misallocated and taxpayers lose. We wish we could say the politicians have learned from failure, but the Biden Administration is coming to town promising much more of the same.”

In the National Review, William Levin argued that “climate scientists are not predicting imminent catastrophe,” but a slow-moving disaster that we have time to prevent. He argues that timelines to solve climate change — like 12 years or by 2050 — are political, not scientific, and that leaning into the time we have on our side is actually the solution.

“Climate change is real and the worst-case scenarios pose significant harm to the earth. But the time frame for action to slow the growth of atmospheric carbon is long,” he says. “Per the IPCC, the computed mean range of warming in its four scenarios approximates 0.1°C to 0.4°C per decade, to 2100.”

He also writes that “it is important to bear in mind that solar carries environmental harms, too. The battery mining and manufacturing involved in solar energy produce greenhouse gases, solar farms require intensive land rights (current technology requires 10 acres of land per megawatt of solar capacity), and transmission lines are subject to complex permitting and environmental impacts. Between nuclear, solar, and gas, with incremental growth in wind and hydro, the preponderance of coal power plants globally can be retired in the next 30 to 40 years — well before climate change imposes irrevocable damage.

“There’s plenty of time, and we have access to a broad array of affordable, low-cost, low-emission options, not to mention potential breakthroughs in carbon sequestration and alternative fuel sources. At least that’s what the science says.”


What the left is saying.

The left wants immediate, sweeping action on climate change and is encouraged by Biden’s early signals — though there is concern he may balk at some of the biggest proposals he campaigned on. Gina McCarthy is one of the few Cabinet picks Biden has made, so far, that makes both establishment and progressive Democrats happy.

“We are very encouraged by the potential of Gina McCarthy to lead a new Office of Climate Mobilization,” Garrett Blad, a spokesman for the progressive Sunrise movement, said. “McCarthy was among our initial picks for the role because she understands the urgency of the latest science and the need to use every tool available in the executive branch to stop the climate crisis. The real test, however, of Biden’s commitment to his bold climate plan is if this role has the teeth necessary to be effective.”

In a New York Times op-ed this weekend, Al Gore wrote that while “the pandemic fills our field of vision at the moment,” the climate crisis is the most dangerous thing we face as a society. But he argues the lessons of the pandemic, like the achievement of science in developing a vaccine, give him hope.

“Even as the climate crisis rapidly worsens, scientists, engineers and business leaders are making use of stunning advances in technology to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels far sooner than was hoped possible,” he wrote. “Solar energy is one example. The cost of solar panels has fallen 89 percent in the past decade, and the cost of wind turbines has dropped 59 percent. The International Energy Agency projects that 90 percent of all new electricity capacity worldwide in 2020 will be from clean energy — up from 80 percent in 2019, when total global investment in wind and solar was already more than three times as large as investments in gas and coal.”

“As renewable energy costs continue to drop, many utilities are speeding up the retirement of existing fossil fuel plants well before their projected lifetimes expire and replacing them with solar and wind, plus batteries,” he added. “In a study this summer, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Sierra Club reported that clean energy is now cheaper than 79 percent of U.S. coal plants and 39 percent of coal plants in the rest of the world — a number projected to increase rapidly. Other analyses show that clean energy combined with batteries is already cheaper than most new natural gas plants.”

In a Politico Magazine op-ed, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) wrote that “in the coming weeks and months, there will be enormous pressure—from Republicans, from polluting and self-promoting industries, and from pundits who still think climate change is too controversial to address—for Democrats to limit their scope, to think small, to negotiate with a Republican Senate that has little interest in negotiating.

“For too long, ‘climate’ policy has been treated as a discrete bucket of ideas divorced from our wider reality,” he wrote. “It’s now clear that our entire national policy portfolio—economic development, transportation planning, housing and urban renewal, agricultural practices, not to mention oil and gas drilling—is really about climate change and how we intend to deal with it. It’s not just the elephant in the room. It’s the whole room… Democrats are in the enviable position of being on the right side of the science and public opinion at the same time. What’s better politics than taking necessary steps that Americans are already pushing us to take?”


My take.

Climate change is a broad, complex topic that spans nearly every aspect of American politics — from the energy sector to race issues to the economy. It’s going to be a central issue of the Biden administration, and Tangle will cover the specific issues as they arise. Consider this “my take” as a first, general look at what I’m seeing — and please note there will be plenty more of these narrowly focused editions as the administration rolls out its policies.

When the first discussion of a COVID-19 vaccine took place here in Tangle, I had a simple message: it’s going to come a lot faster and be a lot better than people are expecting. Why? Because most times, in human history, whenever the world’s most intelligent, powerful and well-financed people try to do something — it gets done. There’s just something remarkable about the ingenuity we have as a species, and something equally remarkable about our affinity for underestimating it.

So let me state here that I’m actually heartened. Yes, I “believe” climate change is real (though I feel silly saying that, like saying “I believe in gravity.”). Yes, it appears to be accelerating — look no further than the temperatures of the oceans, our melting ice caps and the species that are going extinct to best understand this crisis. But I am heartened. Gore, Levin and others across the political spectrum have all pointed to some of the most encouraging signs we’ve had on this problem in a while.

First, elected Republicans are no longer throwing snowballs on the floor of Congress to prove climate change doesn’t exist. Many are finally embracing modest government interventions, and most are rallying around the scientific consensus that our planet is sick. 50 college conservative and Republican groups have petitioned the Republican National Committee to change its position on climate change, signaling that the next generation of Republicans understands the issue well. Exxon Mobil wrote down $20 billion in fossil fuel reserves and BP executives have conceded much of its oil “won’t see the light of day,” more evidence that even they understand the future of energy is going to rely a lot less on oil.

Gore is right, too, that solar is getting cheaper, as are the batteries needed to store it, and that renewable energy across the board is growing quickly. Nearly all new sources of energy humans are creating now are renewable — that’s critical. It’s also true that the reality of climate issues is becoming all too real for many of us who live in storm, fire or flood zones. Two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more to address climate change, which is as close to a mandate as any position gets in today’s bitterly divided political climate.

Droughts and floods unlike anything any living person has ever seen are tearing through farms in the midwest. Luxury apartments in coastal cities are threatened by rising sea levels. And as much as the left is mocked for “making everything about race,” the disproportionate impact of irresponsible climate and environmental policies on minority communities is undeniable: look no further than Flint’s water crisis or the way air pollution has made these communities more vulnerable to COVID-19 to see it.

The left has some uncomfortable truths to face as well: nuclear energy probably needs to be a part of the equation if we want to have any chance of hitting our targets. It’s clear there are safety issues that need to be resolved, but I don’t think we have a realistic shot without it. The federal government’s alternative energy investment record under Obama was shoddy, at best, but there are some important lessons we can learn. Perhaps most important is to recognize that innovative companies like Tesla are going to do much more to change the future of our energy sector than federal investment or intervention. We need innovation more than we need regulation, though we’ll need both to have a prayer.

Gore’s op-ed in The Times had a lot of the types of standard-issue political platitudes and generalizations that made him an underwhelming politician, but there was one line I particularly liked. He quoted Sheikh Yamani from 20 years ago, who said “the Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” To me, this is the point. Our future lies not in running out of or limiting how we use our remaining oil, but in discovering better, cheaper, safer, more efficient ways to produce energy. And if the last 10 years are any indication, we’re well on our way.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Why, in your opinion, is President Trump breaking with a hundred-year precedent and rushing through so many federal executions, and why is the Supreme Court rubber-stamping them? Is the cruelty and shock value the point, or do Trump and Barr gain politically from these executions even at this late date?

— Sophie, Covington, Louisiana

Tangle: There have been a lot of headlines about this, but in case you missed them, here’s the story Sophie is referencing: in the last few months, the Trump administration has executed nine federal prisoners — and another is scheduled to die by lethal injection today. They plan to execute three more people before Trump leaves office. The numbers are, in a word, shocking: we hadn’t had a federal execution in 17 years before 2020, and it’s the first time anyone has ever been executed by a lame-duck president. In all of the 2000s combined, the federal government executed just three people. Yet the Trump administration could carry out 13 executions in his final months.

Brandon Bernard, who was killed last week, was convicted of murdering two youth ministers in the year 2000. The family of those youth ministers thanked the Trump administration for carrying the execution out, writing that they “have grieved for 21 years waiting for justice to finally be served.” Bernard’s final words were an apology to the family. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.” He was described as a “model prisoner” and his lawyers were fighting for his case to be reexamined, as five of the nine jurors who handed him the death penalty now supported him being sentenced to life in prison instead.

I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, and — paradoxically — I believe it’s my more conservative side that makes me feel this way. Which is why I find the whole thing so confounding. I can’t think of any greater power to give the government than the legal right to kill its citizens. From a religious perspective, I can’t square faith in judgment from some higher being with the position that humans have the right to make a final judgment on each other. From a judicial perspective, we know that we have sometimes killed innocent people and that new technology or evidence too frequently overturns past convictions.

Thousands of people are, right now, in prison for crimes they are innocent of — and killing them removes any possibility real justice can ever be done. Since 1973, 170 people on death row have had their convictions overturned and been exonerated, nearly four a year. The argument for abolishing capital punishment could not be more clear to me.

I don’t know exactly why the Trump administration is doing this now. The liberal writer Adam Serwer has championed the position on Trump that “the cruelty is the point,” but I don’t buy that as much as I think it could be another chapter in the culture war — what’s supposed to look like a “tough on crime” position, especially in Bernard’s case, which was a crime against two religious Americans. Biden also opposes capital punishment, so these executions were not going to happen under his administration, and it’s possible the families of the victims successfully lobbied Barr and Trump to act. Barr himself has said his department is committed to following the law, and he changed policies to make lethal injections acceptable again.

The good news — to me — is that there were just 17 total executions this year, the fewest since 1991. Most of that is due to COVID-19, but it has ramped up attention on the issue. While the federal government has bulled forward, states have nearly brought executions to a halt — and more states are outlawing the practice every year. Public support for the death penalty is falling in America and globally, which is also good.


A story that matters.

One of the provisions in the COVID-19 relief bill circulating in Congress would be a major windfall for the wealthiest Americans, according to The Intercept’s Lee Fang. The bill includes a provision that allows businesses which are claiming expenses reimbursed by the forgivable PPP loans to also be used as deductions when calculating taxable income. “In other words, the change would allow a corporation that claimed $1 million in PPP reimbursements to apply that money as a deduction on its tax return, reducing taxable income by $1 million.” Fang notes that this provides an “unprecedented tax advantage that overwhelmingly benefits investors and high-net-worth professionals,” one that before this provision was prohibited by the IRS.


Numbers.

  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who now have a lot of or some confidence in newspapers.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans who now have a lot of or some confidence in Congress.
  • 61%. The percentage of voters who believe Trump is losing election challenges in court because of insufficient evidence, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 8%. The percentage of voters who believe Trump is losing election challenges in court because of poor representation, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 27%. The percentage of voters who believe Trump is losing election challenges in court because of bias in the courts against Trump, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
  • 37%. The percentage of Republican voters who say that the president should never concede.
  • 29%. The percentage of Republican voters who said last week that the president should never concede.

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Have a nice day.

When you’re up in space, everything gets recycled. Including urine. A filtration system on the International Space Station has been dedicated to filtering and recycling all the moisture in space for the astronauts, which it does with remarkable success. But it’s not very efficient. It has to be replaced every 90 days and it’s apparently quite heavy. But there’s been a breakthrough: a Danish company has harnessed aquaporin proteins that occur naturally in our kidneys and the roots of plants to help filter contaminants out of fluid. And now the system is being eyed for use here on earth — and could offer a solution for the 2 billion people who don’t have access to clean drinking water.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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