Nov 25, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning, and happy Thanksgiving (week)! I'm grateful for you, dear readers! 

My latest Harder Line column is pegged to our broader series at Axios about what matters in the 2020 election and beyond. I'll share a glimpse of that, and then Ben Geman will you get up to speed on the latest news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,235 words, < 5-minute read.

1 big thing: A historic climate election

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

Climate change is playing a larger — and more polarizing — role than ever before in a presidential election.

Why it matters: In the past, the topic barely registered with voters and candidates were less polarized. Today, all Democratic candidates are treating it as a crisis, with detailed plans and funding sources to address it, while President Trump ignores the problem and bashes those plans.

The big picture: The impacts of climate change, like more intense wildfires and more severe flooding, are increasing in frequency. Meanwhile, ways to solve the problem, like renewable energy, are becoming more affordable, even while the science increasingly says the problem is growing more dire.

  • These developments taken together are making climate change a tangible issue for broader swaths of the population than in the past — so it’s permeating our politics in newly forceful ways.

Between the lines: Multiple surveys of public opinion show Americans' growing concern about climate change being driven almost entirely by Democrats.

  • Democrats are looking to clamp down significantly on fossil fuels and enact ever-more aggressive and expensive plans, embodied around the Green New Deal rhetoric.

Flashback: Here’s a brief run down memory lane.

  • In the 2016 and 2012 presidential contests, climate change didn’t register much with either the candidates or the voters.
  • In 2008, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama both acknowledged climate change as a problem and put forward aggressive policies.
  • The topic rarely came up in presidential contests before that, largely because it was just beginning to emerge as a public issue. More traditional environmental problems were paramount.

Climate change has received far more attention among Democratic candidates than it ever has in the past.

  • Although the topic is still not a top focus in the Democratic primary debates, CNN and MSNBC both hosted forums for the candidates to discuss climate change.

The other side: Congressional Republicans, who have mostly ignored climate change for the last decade, are looking to respond to what is a growing public opinion trend of younger people being more worried about climate change than older people.

  • Trump campaign spokesperson Sarah Matthews criticized the Green New Deal and Democrats' plans to significantly curtail — or even eliminate altogether — fossil fuels.

The bottom line: While it won’t be the top issue in the election, we’re entering a new high water mark for climate change and its political saliency.

Go deeper

2. Coal's record decline in 2019
Expand chart
Reproduced from Carbon Brief; Chart: Axios Visuals

Global coal-fired electricity production is projected to drop 3% this year, the largest decline on record, concludes an analysis from three think tanks published by the website Carbon Brief.

Why it matters: Reining in carbon emissions from coal-fired generation is a pillar of every major pathway for limiting temperature rise.

  • Consider: The 3% rise in CO2 from coal generation in 2018 accounted for half of that year's increase in emissions from all fossil fuels, the study notes.

The big picture, per the report: "The record drop also raises the prospect of slowing global CO2 emissions growth in 2019."

  • "Nevertheless, global coal use and emissions remain far higher than the level required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement."
  • This year's decline follows "decades of near-uninterrupted growth."

What they found: Increases in non-fossil power sources, coal-plant retirements, CO2 pricing, and the slowing global economy all contributed to the decline.

Between the lines: The report explores regional developments that led to the overall drop, including...

  • Power demand growth in China, the world's largest coal-user, slowed this year and non-fossil sources met nearly all the increase.
  • Demand growth has also slowed in India, the world's second-largest coal consumer, while generation from non-coal sources has grown.
  • In the U.S., where coal-fired generation has been falling for years, 2019 will be one of the largest annual declines.
3. Where it stands: Tesla’s strange truck

Tesla's Cybertruck. Photo courtesy of Tesla

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter last night that pre-orders for the company's electric pickup have reached 200,000 — an update from the 187,000 running tally he touted earlier Sunday.

Why it matters: It's a sign of interest in the unusual and, as CNBC puts it, "polarizing" vehicle unveiled late Thursday night in Los Angeles.

But, but, but: There's a key footnote. The orders require only a $100 refundable deposit, so these numbers are an important but imperfect gauge of how many Cybertrucks Tesla might ultimately sell.

What they're saying: "Polarizing" is a word that has surfaced repeatedly since the rollout (and The Verge compiled some amusing reactions here).

  • Barclays' Brian Johnson, in a note, argues that big legacy automakers can "breathe a sigh of relief."
  • While the futuristic features "may actually expand the market by drawing in younger drivers who are gaming and sci-fi fans," these aren't the same buyers in the market for traditional models, he writes.

The big picture: Tesla's unveiling comes as GM and Ford, as well as newer players, are planning electric pickups too.

  • Johnson writes that Tesla's truck is "more of an adjacent category to the traditional pickup markets which GM, Ford and Rivian ... are likely addressing."
4. A new look at "Peak ICE"
Expand chart
Reproduced from Third Way; Chart: Axios Visuals

Sales of gasoline-powered light-duty vehicles in the U.S. are unlikely to ever top their 2016 level of 17.3 million, according to an analysis from the think tank Third Way.

Why it matters: Transportation is the country's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The big picture: The report adds to the emerging signs of "peak ICE."

  • That's the prospect that sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars in the U.S. and perhaps the world will never rise again.

What's next: "Sales of gasoline powered vehicles will continue to fall due to the strong growth and now competitive viability of electric vehicles," the report predicts.

  • EVs are just a tiny share of vehicle sales right now.
  • But the analysis notes they have momentum, with sales of plug-in hybrids and full electrics combined growing fourfold since 2015 to reach an estimated 433,000 this year.
  • Nevertheless, it calls for policy measures that would speed up adoption of EVs, including incentives for re-tooling manufacturing plants to produce new models.
5. Mike Bloomberg's climate pitch

By now you probably know that billionaire Mike Bloomberg jumped into the 2020 Democratic primary fight on Sunday.

Why it matters: Bloomberg has worked for a long time on climate change, and his rollout signaled that it's among the big topics he'll emphasize.

  • His announcement video says that Bloomberg "stood up to the coal lobby, and the outright denial of this administration to protect the only home we have from the growing menace of climate change."

The big picture: Bloomberg has bankrolled a years-long campaign that has helped hasten the shutdown of coal-fired power plants.

  • He's broadened the scope of his climate work during the Trump era and this year he launched the $500 million "Beyond Carbon" initiative.
  • That effort expands the anti-coal work to include, among other things, fighting new gas plant construction.

Our thought bubble: While climate's political salience has risen this cycle, several 2020 hopefuls are pushing aggressive plans.

  • Plus, as we noted when he revived his 2020 flirtation, environmentalists that like his climate work haven't exactly been clamoring for a President Bloomberg.
  • And a billionaire white guy running as a moderate doesn't exactly capture the Democratic zeitgeist.

Why you'll hear about this again: Bloomberg has the cash to get his message out. He's reportedly spending at least $37 million on TV ads over the next two weeks.

6. Business notes: Occidental and Mitsubishi

Oil-and-gas: "Carl Icahn plans to nominate a slate of 10 directors in an attempt to seize control of the board of U.S. oil and gas producer Occidental Petroleum Corp., according to people familiar with the matter," Bloomberg reports.

Renewables: Per Reuters, Mitsubishi will buy Eneco in a deal that values the renewables-focused Dutch energy firm at $4.5 billion.

  • Mitsubishi bested Shell in the competition for the company, which is a blow to Shell's increasing moves into power.
Ben GemanAmy Harder