Nov 9, 2020

Axios Generate

Good morning, my latest column looks at how climate change fared as a political issue in the elections. I'll share a glimpse and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

🚨Tonight on our post-election “Axios on HBO” episode:

  • Valerie Biden Owens, the president-elect’s adviser and sister, tells us how Joe Biden’s upbringing drove his campaign thinking.
  • House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy talks about the future of the GOP and the “new power” of House progressives within the Democratic Party.
  • House Majority Whip James Clyburn blames “sloganeering” like “defund the police” within the Democratic Party for Dem losses and discusses who he’d like for Biden’s Cabinet.
  • Rep. Ro Khanna tells Jonathan Swan that the House Democratic Caucus has “trust to build” after losing seats. (clip)

Catch the show at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Today's Smart Brevity Count: 1,200 words, 4½ minutes.

1 big thing: Climate's mixed election showing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Climate change got more attention this election cycle than ever, but the (political) science is mixed on whether it helped or hurt candidates who ran on it.

Driving the news: Joe Biden campaigned on the topic more than any other presidential nominee, which climate activists say is a victory. But his wins in battleground states may have come in spite of it, not because of it, political observers say.

What they’re saying: “The more climate change was on the agenda, the more it drove up votes in blue states, but it worked against Democrats in purple states, in battleground states,” said a former Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given tense intra-party divisions.

Where it stands: A Democrat winning the presidency, Republicans probably keeping the Senate and the Democratic House losing seats “is not a governing alignment designed to address climate change,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

By the numbers: Environmentalists point to Biden’s triumph over Trump as their biggest victory. The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund put $40 million of its unprecedented $115 million electoral investment toward the White House race.

  • But otherwise, their return on investment is not looking good. Out of 21 races across the Senate and House LCV invested in, it looks likely they will have won six and lost 15 (five races are still not officially called).

How it works: Parsing out the climate's role depends on geography.

  • Democratic Sen. Ed Markey's ambitious climate policy helped propel his win in a close primary battle in September in the solidly blue state of Massachusetts.
  • But voters in Florida, at the front lines of a warming world, voted for Trump even more strongly this year compared to four years ago.
  • This reflects the fact that although climate change is rising as a priority for Americans, “it hasn’t yet become so important — even in places incredibly vulnerable like Miami — to overcome political allegiances,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.
  • Read my full column to learn about other electoral examples.

The other side: Joe Bonfiglio, who leads the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, said higher than expected turnout among Trump supporters is what drove GOP wins in some races — not climate change or anti-fracking sentiment hurting Democrats, as some observers believe.

The bottom line: Biden’s presidential victory was propelled largely by winning the “blue wall” battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. “He did this while holding strong climate positions,” Bonfiglio said. “You gotta think that’s a win.”

2. Breaking: Vaccine hopes send oil prices sharply upward

Crude oil prices jumped this morning after Pfizer announced its coronavirus vaccine trial was effective in preventing COVID-19 infections in 90% of previously uninfected people.

Why it matters: The pandemic's spread and the way it thwarts travel and economic activity have kept oil prices depressed for months after recovering from their spring depths.

Driving the news: U.S. oil prices were up by over 10% to over $41 per barrel, while the global benchmark Brent crude also rose about 10% to over $43 per barrel.

Where it stands: Stocks of oil producers are also up on the news. Exxon and Chevron, the largest U.S.-based multinationals, are both up by over 10% in pre-market trading.

3. Biden's climate path: send lawyers, sun and money

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Joe Biden's first remarks as president-elect Saturday claimed a mandate to act on climate. But making good will require tough lawyers, creativity, luck and persuasion.

The big picture: His new transition website puts climate among the four top priorities alongside COVID-19, the economy and racial justice.

  • But with Democrats facing long odds of winning the Senate, Biden won't get a sweeping climate bill unless the GOP posture changes radically and surprisingly.

Why it matters: That leaves Biden with a plan that's very aggressive — big goals include 100% carbon-free power by 2035 — but heavily reliant on executive powers.

Driving the news: Experts and advocates are quickly weighing in on what Biden should do with those powers and perhaps small openings to work with Congress.

Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, offers a primer in Foreign Policy magazine on the many things presidents can do without Congress, which of course includes regulations but also...

  • Expanding renewables leasing on public lands; using procurement (including the energy-thirsty military) to drive clean tech adoption; appointing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission members who will set market rules that favor low-carbon sources, and more.

Quick take: Here's where the creativity, luck, persuasion and lawyers come in.

  • His plans will require a creative government-wide approach, which means not just the usual actors like EPA, but also agencies like, say, HUD (more on that below).
  • Biden's going to face ferocious legal battles as he looks to use existing powers under the Clean Air Act and other laws to craft far-reaching rules and restrictions around vehicle emissions, public lands drilling and more.
  • On the persuasion front, the need for new economic recovery measures will provide some opportunities for working with Congress on clean energy and climate-friendly infrastructure support.
  • Also on the persuasion front, Bordoff (an Obama-era White House aide) says Biden can use the executive's foreign policy domain for things like promoting collaboration on clean energy trade and creating a multilateral agreement on methane emissions.
4. A little more on Biden's approach

This Washington Post story gets to how Biden's plan will rely on looking government-wide for policy ideas...

  • "Biden’s advisers have said that they plan to elevate climate change as a priority in departments that have not always treated it as one, including the Transportation, State and Treasury departments."
  • "It will influence key appointments, affecting everything from overseas banking and military bases to domestic roads and farms."

Go deeper:

5. Wall Street looks for EV gold

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Axios' Joann Muller reports that Wall Street speculators are flocking to electric vehicle startups, assigning gigantic valuations to companies that have yet to produce any vehicles, much less any revenue or profits.

Why it matters: Searching for the next Tesla is a risky proposition. It's still unclear how quickly the EV market will develop, or how large it will ultimately become — and some of the new EV players are likely to fail.

What's happening: At least nine EV-related startups have gone public, or will soon, through a so-called reverse merger with a publicly traded shell company. These special purpose acquisition companies open up new paths to public markets for many companies.

  • A handful of other EV startups are sticking with private financing, some backed by deep-pocketed strategic partners like Amazon, which owns a stake in Rivian, for example.
  • Although they're generally lumped together, hardly any newcomers are actually trying to copy Tesla, which — don't forget — struggled mightily at first.
  • Instead, they're trying to broaden the market Tesla created by carving out new niches and employing different business strategies.

The big picture: Each company offers a bullish view of the future — along with rosy financial projections — which Barron's cautions are highly speculative.

The competitors include carmakers Lucid and Fisker; truck manufacturers like Lordstown and Arrival; and parts and infrastructure companies like Romeo Systems and ChargePoint.

Click here to read Joann's smart brevity look at how these and other players are trying to position themselves.

6. Visualizing why investors are betting on EVs
Reproduced from BloombergNEF; Chart: Axios Visuals

The long-term energy outlook that BloombergNEF published recently provides a look at how much its team sees electrified passenger travel growing.

By the numbers: "By 2050, EVs capture 73% of all sales. They make up 54% of the global passenger-car fleet, and in some regions go higher, reaching between 56% and 80% in Europe, the U.S. and China," they estimate.