If Congress doesn’t pass a climate bill, America will be a hotter, poorer, and less free place. Also: A solar-powered EV.
Wednesday, June 15, 2022
Weekly Planet

Happy Wednesday. This is The Weekly Planet, a newsletter about climate change from The Atlantic.

First: What if Senate Democrats fail on climate change? Then: Someone finally built an EV with solar panels on the roof. (Just don’t look at the price tag.)

You can also read this week’s edition online. Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.

By the way, The Weekly Planet will be on vacation next week. It will return on June 29.

What If They Fail?

Senate Democrats have spent the past 18 months trying to put together a climate deal amenable to all 50 members of their caucus. It has not been easy. The main obstacles, so far, have been Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the owner of a coal-trading company, who wants any deal to reduce the federal budget deficit, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who refuses to increase tax rates, the easiest way to satisfy Manchin’s deficit-reduction goal. Even beyond that problem, there’s been a lot of confusion about next steps—Manchin, Sinema, the White House, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have struggled to run a quiet, low-drama negotiation together.

They are running out of time. The Senate only has 17 working days left before its traditional August recess. Senators can take longer than that to blink. Reconciliation, the parliamentary procedure used to pass legislation through the Senate with a simple majority, devours floor time, so even if the caucus does make a deal, Schumer may not be able to hustle it through the process in time.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking and talking to experts about one question: What if they fail? If Democrats can’t reach an agreement on climate policy before the midterms, how will that shape the country—and the world—in the 2020s and beyond?

This is the subject of my story at The Atlantic today, which I encourage you to read. But for this newsletter, I want to highlight one section. Many of the consequences of congressional inaction will appear in the environment, of course: More carbon will pile into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and intensifying ocean acidification. But even before that, other consequences will show up in the American economy. Here’s one particularly important one:

Another probable outcome is that the next generation of clean-energy technologies won’t get scaled up in the United States; the expertise to produce them will be created elsewhere in the world. I’ve written before about how American labs and companies invented solar photovoltaic technology in the 1950s, only to squander their competitive advantage and allow other countries to reap the benefits of mass production. Without a climate bill, that could happen again for the next round of decarbonization technology, such as hydrogen produced by renewables, direct air carbon capture, and sustainable-aviation-fuel production. China, meanwhile, has thrown its weight behind renewables manufacturing, encouraging companies to scale up domestically and investors to support them.

By contrast, if the tax credits pass, “you start to see a world where with some of these emerging technologies, like [direct air capture] or hydrogen, the U.S. has a competitive head start and has the potential to get into a dominant position,” Larsen said.

The most likely outcome might be a mix of these scenarios. Some new climate-tech start-ups may build their first facility here, because last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law authorized more than $11.5 billion for demonstration direct-air-capture and hydrogen projects. But that money can’t necessarily help build a company’s third, fourth, or fifth facility, and when it comes time to scale up, those same firms may go abroad. “Nobody’s going to build a scale-up business on a fingers-crossed hope that there’s a tax credit at the end of the decade,” Larsen said.

“We’re talking about $1 [trillion] to $4 trillion a year in investments due to energy transition,” Nemet added. “If that spending happens elsewhere, or U.S. firms don’t do that hiring, that’s a lost opportunity.” It could also be a national-security blunder. Look at the role that batteries and other climate tech have played in the war in Ukraine, where soldiers have used small drones to drop grenades on Russian trenches and fired anti-tank rockets from e-bikes. In a future conflict, having the industrial capacity and engineering know-how to mass-manufacture such gadgets could prove decisive.  

Even if the U.S. forgoes that investment, Nemet’s largest fear is that the transition will happen too slowly. Even the most conservative assessments say that the world will need to use technology to remove one to three gigatons of carbon every year by the middle of the century. That implies an almost unimaginable level of technological growth given what exists today. “For direct air capture to reach one gigaton a year in 2050, it would have to grow at 40 percent a year, every year, from now to 2050,” he said. Solar deployment, by contrast, has grown 30 percent a year for 40 years, according to Nemet’s research. “And solar’s been kind of miraculous that way, so we’d have to go a little faster,” he said. Even cellphones grew only 15 percent per year at their peak. “If we’re talking about taking our foot off the gas a little bit in the U.S., that’s gonna make it harder” to meet those targets, Nemet told me.

Read the rest of my story here.

3 More Things

1. Batteries! As we’ve talked about here before, batteries are important for the energy transition because they let you move electricity from one part of the day (the sunny day or windy night) to another part (the evening hours, when electricity use peaks). They’re also important for electric vehicles, for obvious reasons.

But I had never thought about the etymology of the word battery before—and it turns out that Benjamin Franklin invented it. In a 1749 letter, he described an “electrical battery” made of a set of grouped jars that could store an electrical charge, then discharge it at the same time. The name was an analogy to a military battery, a set of artillery that fires at the same time.

New York–friendly readers will note that this means that the battery in The Battery, the park and former fort at the southern tip of Manhattan, is older than the modern meaning of the battery.

2. You’ve thought about it, I’ve thought about it, the Dutch brand Lightyear is finally doing it: making a production EV that has solar panels on the roof. The sleek Lightyear 0 sedan has a range of 388 miles, but its rooftop solar panels should add 44 miles of driving a day. It can charge while driving or parked; Lightyear estimates that drivers in Spain or Portugal with short commutes could go without charging their cars for seven months a year.

The downside: The car will cost 250,000 euros, or about $266,000.

3. This is a bit wonky, but it’s important: The 76-year-old billionaire Harold Hamm offered to take the shale company he founded, Continental Resources, private yesterday. Hamm and his family already own 83 percent of Continental, which drills for oil and natural gas from Texas to North Dakota; if the company’s board accepts his deal, its shares would fully leave public markets.

Why would an oil magnate ever take a shale company private? Because institutional investors in the public market are skeptical of plowing more money into growing the oil supply, favoring free cash flow over growing production. Hamm told Continental employees that he thinks a private shale company would have more ability to expand.

Meanwhile, last month, Hiroko Tabuchi at The New York Times reported that when Royal Dutch Shell sold an oil field in Nigeria to a private company last year, flaring from the field surged. Under the new ownership, the field released significantly more carbon pollution and soot than it had before.

Two thoughts here. First, over the past few years, climate advocates have celebrated when public companies divest of oil and gas assets. This general divestment has seemed to show that the market is moving “our” way. But many of the new private owners care even less about the climate than the old public ones, and there is even less market or regulatory oversight for private assets than publicly owned ones. Second, the current fossil-fuel crunch is only going to accelerate this transition: As long as public investors favor cash flow over increasing oil production (which is what climate advocates want them to do!), then more and more assets are going to flow to private hands.

Now, that could still be good for the climate on net, because so much of the world’s wealth exists in public markets. But it’s a more complicated story than advocates have told so far.