Jul 7, 2021 - Podcasts

How smartphone alerts could solve energy crises

Last week, as much of the country experienced a heat wave, New York City’s Central Park had its hottest day since 2013. And New Yorkers got an alert on their cellphones from the city they'd never seen before: help us conserve energy while the grid is strained. It worked.

  • And, what’s left behind as the U.S. exits Afghanistan.
  • Plus, why the U.S. COVID vaccination rate is stuck.

Guests: Axios' Zach Basu, Tina Reed, and Bryan Walsh.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected].

You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, July 7th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: why the U.S. covid vaccination rate is stuck. Plus, could a smartphone alert solve short term energy crises?

But first, today’s One Big Thing: what’s left behind as the US exits Afghanistan.

Early Monday, the Taliban took over at least six key districts in Northern Afghanistan. Continuing a military advance that’s been happening for weeks. A reminder, U.S. and NATO troops are meant to withdraw fully by September 11th. Speaking to ABC News this weekend, general Austin Scott Miller said the U.S. withdrawal is starting to create conditions that could put the country at risk.

GENERAL AUSTIN SCOTT MILLER: Hope actually matters and morale actually matters. And so as you watch the Taliban moving across the country, what you don't want to have happen is that the people lose hope and they believe they have now have a foregone conclusion presented to them.

NIALA: Zach Basu has been following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He’s here now to catch us up on all of these stories.

ZACH BASU: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: The U.S. as I said, is scheduled to fully withdraw, not until September 11th, but this says withdrawal has already started. Can you tell us what the latest is on how that's affecting events in Afghanistan?

ZACH: Sure. So, on Friday, the U.S. vacated Bagram airbase, which has been the epicenter of its military operations in Afghanistan for the past two decades. And they actually left, reportedly, in the middle of the night. They didn't even tell the Afghan commanders that they were leaving. So this is really the most significant sign yet that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has, for all intents and purposes, come to a close. And then on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that 90% of the withdrawal has been completed.

NIALA: And meanwhile, what's the Taliban been doing during all of this?

ZACH: So the Taliban began launching this military offensive on May 1st, and the situation on the ground is really grim. According to one estimate, the Taliban has taken control of more than 120 of Afghanistan's 407 districts since May 1st, including 38 in the last six days alone, which sort of underscores just how rapid and effective the Taliban has been on the battlefield.

NIALA: What does that mean for the Afghan government?

ZACH: So U.S. intelligence officials have warned that the Afghan government, which has always been fragile and plagued by corruption, could collapse within six months of the U.S. withdrawal. And the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, General Miller, has warned that the country could be on the path to a chaotic civil war if it continues on this current trajectory. And he said, this is something that quote “should be a concern for the world.”

NIALA: What has the Biden administration said?

ZACH: So Biden on Friday was asked whether the U.S. would provide air support to the Afghan government, if it was needed to keep Kabul out of the hands of the Taliban. And he gave sort of a vague answer about how the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan government, but that it's ultimately up to their security forces to defend themselves. And to be fair, Biden has always been a skeptic of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and I think the way that he views it now is that we've been there for 20 years. The war needs to end at some point and if not now then when.

NIALA: Right, so as America's longest war ends, Zach, what are you watching for next?

ZACH: I think you're really gonna start to see more pressure for members of Congress, especially Republicans, for Biden to explain what his plan is if the Afghan government collapses and the country falls into this chaotic civil war. And so this potential for scenes like we saw in Vietnam in 1975, you know, the fall of Saigon - that was something that really spooked President Trump out of fully withdrawing from Afghanistan. So it will be interesting to see how Biden responds to this pressure.

NIALA: Axios’ Zach Basu. Thank you, Zach.

ZACH: Thank you.

NIALA: In 15 seconds we're back with President Biden’s take on the U.S. covid vaccination rate.

[ad break]

Welcome back to Axios Today! I'm Niala Boodhoo. President Biden missed his goal to have 70% of the adult population vaccinated with at least one dose against COVID by July 4th. That should now happen by the end of this week, but no one's celebrating just yet as vaccination rates have slowed way down all across the country.

Here's what president Biden said about it yesterday:

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We can't get complacent now. The best thing a community can do to protect themselves is to increase vaccination rates. Let's finish the job, finish it together.

NIALA: Axios healthcare editor, Tina Reed is here to tell us why the U.S. vaccination rate is stalled and if we can indeed finish this job. Hi Tina.

TINA REED: Hi Niala, thanks for having me.

NIALA: Tina, this is nothing new we've heard from president Biden, what he said yesterday, but is the federal government now changing its approach to getting people vaccines?

TINA: So estimates of herd immunity have been adjusted upward from that 60 to 70% target that has been talked about a lot to 80% more recently. And as we heard, President Biden was all but begging people get this vaccine. And we're really seeing a drop in the number of people heading to these mass vaccination sites.

And so he was talking really shifting to more targeted efforts, such as, distributing vaccines through doctor's offices, pharmacies, pediatricians, mobile clinics, and employers. And it really it's going to get more targeted now because it has to.

NIALA: Could this result in mandates around vaccinations?

TINA: What I've been hearing from experts is that the idea of employer mandates are probably coming and one of the reasons we haven't seen those is because even though the EEOC has said that it would be allowable, most employers are reluctant to require a vaccination that is still under emergency use authorization. So they've really been sticking with using incentives rather than requirements.

NIALA: Do we know when that EUA may be lifted?

TINA: No, there's a number of people who feel hesitant just because they hear that emergency use authorization. And it makes them leery of getting the vaccine even if it doesn't make that much of a difference.

NIALA: Axios' healthcare editor, Tina Reed. Thank you, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: Okay. So you know, those piercingly loud emergency alerts you sometimes get on your phone? I got one last week for a tornado warning here in D.C. Sometimes they're Amber Alerts. Well, a few days ago, New Yorkers got a new one.

BRYAN WALSH: I'd never seen anything like this before. It said instantly that New York City is urging all households and businesses to limit energy usage immediately to prevent power outages. And that meant avoiding the use of energy intensive appliances, like washer or dryers, and especially limit unnecessary use of air conditioning, which given the fact that it was almost a hundred degrees, pretty much all air conditioning use felt pretty necessary at that time.

NIALA: That's Axios’ Bryan Walsh, a New York resident in one of the millions who got a smartphone alert as heat spiked in the city, straining the power grid. And the amazing thing is this alert worked. Bryan, how well did this work?

BRYAN: I mean, this came out at 4:15 PM last Wednesday. And you could see actually energy consumption dropped almost immediately. And that time of the evening is when you see usually see power spike. And so people saw it and like I did, they, they responded, they turned their AC down. And the grid kept on going.

NIALA: Do you think these push alerts could be the future of mitigating the short-term energy crises?

BRYAN: I definitely think that could be. You know, other areas like California, for instance, will send out what are known as flex alerts. So tell you, okay, between these hours tomorrow, you should reduce your power use. But something like this that shows up in your phone, it's very loud and intrusive, really gets your attention. And it really worked at least this time.

NIALA: Axios’ Future correspondent, Bryan Walsh. Thanks, Bryan.

BRYAN: Thank you.

NIALA: Before we go, a little piece of presidential history in the making today: former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter are celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. So not only is Jimmy Carter the oldest living president at 96, but the Carters are now the longest married presidential couple in U.S. history. Here’s a little of how they’ve stayed connected all these years, as told to PBS Newshour:

ROSALYNN CARTER: I think we give each other space and we try to do things together. We're always looking for things we can do together, like birding and fly fishing.

JIMMY CARTER: We also make up and give each other a kiss before we go to sleep.

NIALA: That’s it for today! You can reach our team at [email protected], you can message me on Twitter or you can text me! My number's (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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