Jul 1, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Worthy of your time: Axios will be hosting a virtual event on how the coronavirus outbreak has upended small businesses. 

  • Join Axios' Mike Allen and Kim Hart today at 12:30pm ET for a discussion with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Madison Black Chamber of Commerce's Camille Carter, and Timber Hill Winery's Amanda Stefl.
  • Register here.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,084 words, 4 minutes.

🎵 And at this moment 40 years ago, the S.O.S. Band was atop Billboard's R&B charts with today's oh-so-catchy intro tune...

1 big thing: The left smoothes over climate differences — for now

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

House Democrats' new climate blueprint may be a wish list, but for now it has succeeded in one big respect: Avoiding a major flare-up of intra-left tensions over policy.

Driving the news: A lot of groups cheered the nearly 550-page plan yesterday, while criticisms from the left flank of the green movement were real but rather muted.

  • "The House Democrats' climate plan is more ambitious than what we’ve seen from Democratic leadership to date — and that is in no small part a testament to the ever-expanding climate movement who have demanded a Green New Deal," said 350.org's Natalie Mebane.
  • Still, she urged Democrats to "go even further and put forward a plan at the scale of the climate crisis."

What they're saying: For one look at where the left is, check out this new blog post from Julian Brave NoiseCat of the think tank Data for Progress.

  • He argues the "zeitgeist has changed" in Democratic climate politics, citing a leftward move and also notes the plan's emphasis on environmental justice.
  • "As someone who stumbled into the climate fight before it was cool, I can’t help but read the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report — even the parts I disagree with — as a sort of small, wonky victory," he writes.

Yes, but: In one sign of how tricky climate politics are, yesterday AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered a mix of praise and warning shots.

  • "There are concerns for our unions in these recommendations, including some of the tax provisions and timetables for emissions reductions and technological mandates," he said in a statement.

The big picture: There's nothing remotely resembling a clear path for enacting most of the big proposals, which in sum are vastly more aggressive than any climate policy seriously considered in the United States.

  • The report, at least the big-ticket pieces requiring legislation, is best viewed as a menu of options for Democrats if — if! — they regain control of the White House and the Senate.
  • And even then, it would depend on how much they could cram through the Senate's budget reconciliation process (which offers a rare chance to move bills without a supermajority), and the party's uncertain appetite to scrap filibuster rules.
  • And also keep in mind that creating legislation opens up endless avenues for conflict that a set of policy recommendations — even a super-duper-detailed one — paper over.

What's next: This morning a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a "serious report on how to tackle the climate crisis."

  • "You will see a similar report from Senate Democrats in July, and if we take the majority, one of the first things we will put on the floor will be a big, bold climate bill," Justin Goodman said.

What we don't know: Readers, please correct me if I'm missing it, but I haven't seen reactions from moderate Senate Democrats, who would have huge sway if the party gains a majority in the chamber.

  • An aide to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the chamber's energy panel, did not respond to a request for comment.
2. China's coal problem is youth
Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new International Energy Agency report highlights one big challenge facing China as the world's largest CO2 emitter begins implementing its national emissions trading system: The country's coal fleet is very young.

Why it matters: IEA's analysis this week warns that while newer facilities are far more efficient than older models, the average plant age "potentially locks in large amounts of CO2 emissions" for decades.

  • "More than 88% of CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2018 came from plants less than 20 years old," they find.

Threat level: The policy recommendations warn that the current design of the trading system’s allotment of emissions permits could hinder its effectiveness (in part due to large surpluses). It also says that eventual expansion of the system beyond coal- and gas-fired power will be important.

The big picture: "Entities can receive surplus allowances for their supercritical and ultra-supercritical [coal] plants, but currently receive no surplus by investing in low-carbon power technologies such as renewables," IEA notes.

  • "This situation may even have the perverse outcome of making the most efficient coal power plant more economically competitive than renewables."
3. Facebook oversight board urged to tackle climate "loophole"

Prominent environmentalists and Democratic activists say Facebook is "allowing the spread of climate misinformation to flourish, unchecked" and urging the company's external oversight board to intervene.

Driving the news: A new open letter with signatories including Stacey Abrams, John Podesta and Tom Steyer takes aim at distribution of content from a group called the CO2 Coalition without warning labels or restrictions.

  • The coalition argues more carbon emissions are a "net benefit" and rejects consensus science on warming.

Why it matters: The letter, organized by the recently launched group Climate Power 2020, could provide an early test for how the recently established oversight board deals with the topic.

The state of play: The letter to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, co-chair of the board, centers on recent reports about how Facebook addressed a CO2 Coalition post.

  • "Instead of heeding the advice of independent scientists and approved fact-checkers from [the nonpartisan fact-checking group] Climate Feedback, Facebook sided with fossil fuel lobbyists by allowing the CO2 Coalition to take advantage of a giant loophole for 'opinion' content," it states.
  • "The loophole has allowed climate denial to fester by labeling it 'opinion,' and thus, avoiding the platform’s fact-checking processes," the letter adds.

What’s next: It’s hard to say! Scott Rosenberg, Axios managing editor for tech, notes that the oversight board hasn’t formally begun operating yet and will have discretion about which complaints to take on.

Go deeper:

4. The racial gap in pollution exposure
Reproduced from the Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new research note underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately hitting U.S. communities of color who already face higher exposure to pollution.

Driving the news: The chart above comes via the Rhodium Group.

  • They issued a report making the case that robust investment in low-carbon energy and pollution abatement would both help address environmental justice and create lots of jobs.

Why it matters: The note arrives as Democrats are ramping up their push for climate legislation that would aim to cut emissions and in particular ease the burdens facing communities of color.

5. A stock market milestone

"Tesla Inc.’s market value has surpassed ExxonMobil Corp.’s in a sign that investors are increasingly betting on a global energy transition away from fossil fuels," Bloomberg reports.

Between the lines: Yes, it's a symbolic shift (as Bloomberg's headline notes), given that oil dominates the transportation economy, EVs remain a niche market and Tesla has yet to even prove consistently profitable.

  • But the market confidence in Tesla and Exxon's share-price woes come as the pandemic is putting the spotlight on the long-term demand trajectory of oil and the prospect that legacy giants face stranded assets.
Ben GemanAmy Harder