The Man Charged with Getting Us to Net Zero Emissions (with John Podesta)

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Several bills signed into federal law by President Biden pave the way for considerable investments in the fight against climate change. But what exactly are those investments and where will they show up in your everyday life? Andy gets those answers from John Podesta, the man tasked with turning Biden’s vision of a clean energy future into a reality. They discuss EV charging stations, heat pump rebates, and how to pressure gas companies to invest in alternatives.

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Andy Slavitt, John Podesta

Andy Slavitt  00:18

This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Don’t forget to email me at Today, we’re gonna have an inside look at how we are fighting the battle to get to net zero carbon emissions. And it’s an interesting one, you know, we’ve all observed the extreme weather events, they are upon us. And we have all wondered how we’re going to get out of this. And I’m talking today to the person who is really charged with the most important initiatives around the globe, to fix the climate problem, and he’s got the resources to do it. His name is John Podesta, you may know who John is. On the one hand, John is a sort of classic Washington figure. He was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in the 2016. campaign, he was Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. He served many roles in the Obama administration. And he’s in charge of implementing climate policy in the Biden administration. On the other hand, John is a very quirky dude, he has been out there talking about aliens and life on other planets for a long, long time, way before others. And we have a little red party at the end of this conversation about that work and how the President, I think asked him, Hey, how’s life on Pluto or something like that? Anyway, we get into that, but the real meat of the conversation is around the work that’s actually being done now that we’ve passed the inflation Reduction Act and put 300 plus billion dollars aside into investing in redoing our basically our entire economy, and building a very substantive economy around a renewable future. We have also focused I think you’ll see in this conversation on how we dig deep into some very specific areas that we could all understand, like, for example, electric vehicles, how are we all going to get electric vehicles, how they’re going to be enough charging stations, how they’re going to be enough low cost batteries, how are they going to locate all of the raw materials, which are hard to come by, those are real challenges that have to be solved. And John is really the guy who’s in charge of allocating the money to figure out how to do that. We’re also going to talk to some degree about how the basic tax credits are going to work, and how the environmental justice issues are going to rear up. As we are increasingly facing a planet where poor people in poor countries and poor people in our own country are going to suffer the brunt of things. How are we going to make up for that, you know, the climate conversation has changed pretty dramatically over the last few years, in sparked by these weather events, there are fewer people outright denying climate change. And there are more people now who are fighting back against initiatives that just will tear down dirty industries. Meanwhile, I think you can hear President Biden shifting the argument to talk about how not only is our green initiatives, good for the planet, but they’re the future of the economy. And our race against China, for competitiveness and leading in these industries will make the jobs of the future and the millions of jobs that are available from investing in these green batteries. And in all of the other things heat pumps, carbon recapture, etc. So the debates now clicked in I think, in a much more interesting way away from is there, isn’t there climate change to what can we do about it? How do we allocate these resources? And who are some of the next set of villains and challenges? What role will the oil companies for example, play who got billions and billions of dollars at stake in dirty energy? So we’re gonna get it all these issues with John and I think it’s one of the most productive conversations about where we’re going next, with climate policy. So with that, let’s bring him on

Andy Slavitt  04:30

Welcome to the bubble, John Podesta.

John Podesta  04:32

It’s great to be with you, Andy.

Andy Slavitt  04:34

So I’m sure the country knows you. And many of our listeners know you from a lot of different places. But tell us about your interest in climate and how you first became this became a passion of yours, John.

John Podesta  04:47

Well, it goes back to my days with President Clinton. So I’ve now serving three presidents. I was active in trying to work on the issue by work on the environment and conservation more generally, when I was Chief of Staff to President Clinton, then I went back into the White House with President Obama and managed the climate portfolio. Then I went back, and during the course of the Trump presidency was one of his critics and, and tried to lay the ground help lay the groundwork. Then candidate Biden embraced it, and made it a centerpiece of his economic program, and worked on the legislation from the outside. And then after the inflation Reduction Act passed, he asked me to come back in and work on the implementation of the bill, which is the most important piece of clean energy and climate legislation that’s ever passed in the history of that state. So it was an honor to do it and an honor that he asked me.

Andy Slavitt  05:56

So as I mentioned in the intro, you were at one point, the Chief of Staff of the entire White House. And now actually, I think you have a bigger job. So maybe we should just start this way. Give us a sense of the state of the climate, you know, what is the situation that we face today?

John Podesta  06:12

Well, I think we see it all around us with the extreme weather, the extreme storms, the drought in the West, the fires in the northwest, sea level rise, hurricanes, that’s happening in the United States happening all around the world, we’re on a path towards what would could be, I think, viewed as catastrophic from the perspective of the effects of climate change on human wellbeing, certainly in our country, but all across the globe. And that’s why it’s so critical that we reduce emissions. One of the things that’s changed really just over the last few years, that is, I think, we’ve come around to consensus that if we could actually stabilize admissions and achieve a net zero economy globally, that is we were taking as much CO2 Out of the errors, were putting it into the air, that we would be able to stabilize our atmosphere. And we’ve got to do that over the course of the next 30 or 40 years. So that is an audacious goal and job. And that’s where the whole term net zero comes from, to get to that place where we’ve stabilized the atmosphere.

Andy Slavitt  07:28

So the President has talked about a goal, as you mentioned, of getting to net zero by 2050. And if you would have said that one year ago, it would have sounded quite fanciful, who would have sounded like a lot of climate sounds these days, which is lots of lofty goals, maybe a couple of lines of plan, but no actual teeth, no actual budget, no actual force. But that obviously changed last year. And you know, just by a hair or by West Virginia hair, perhaps, when the inflation reduction acts passed, so $369 billion towards climate, maybe just to help us understand, can it make the difference is net zero by 2050? Possible? If we implement this in all of its provisions?

John Podesta  08:24

Well, it’s going to take tremendous innovation. That’s what this bill did, really, it is at the heart of an economic strategy that’s investment led, that builds an economy from, as the President says, From the middle up bottom up, by investing in American technology and American innovation American workers to create both a stronger economy here in the United States, but driving the kind of change we need in lowering costs of clean energy innovating in the space. They’ll have global impacts. And I’m optimistic that this together with other authority that the President has to create strong standards for reducing emissions in clean transportation and clean power in other areas. We’re definitely going to be the leaders and we can get the job done. But it’s going to take a global effort, every economy moving together towards this goal, and we’re seeing it happen. I mean, the it’s astounding how much has already occurred been announced. This was a bill that is private sector led provides. Two thirds of the money that you described comes in the form of tax support, again, for clean agriculture, for clean buildings for clean transportation for clean power, for clean manufacturing. And I think that people are excited about it. There’s been over $100 billion worth of announcements just since the bill passed in new clean battery technology in In the solar supply chain and commitments to deploy more renewables, more generally across the board announcements about offshore wind about clean hydrogen. So I think the incentives are now there, and the private sectors reacting with clear policy that is embedded for 10 years into the US tax code. So this, again, is intended to support good jobs, union jobs as we’re building, what is really a transformative, clean energy economy.

Andy Slavitt  10:37

Yeah, so it sounds very transformative. It sounds like if you’re at the end of this are in the process, it changes how we work, how we live, how we get places, how foods grown. So it’s an enormous undertaking. Let’s take a break, and come back and talk EVs that’s electric vehicles, and when they’re going to be affordable enough, and I mostly want to know when Lana’s going to get an enough network of charging stations. So the carts can be charged wherever you are ubiquitously? […] carbon and duck couple of the key provisions and talk about what some of the biggest challenges and greatest opportunities are implementing them? So starting with electric vehicles? I think the two or three questions that I think probably people are most curious about are number one, there’s a pretty large tax credit for people who were particularly under, I think it’s $150,000 a year income if I remember correctly, to make buying electric vehicle even more affordable. So one question is, how do we make people aware of that credit? Secondly, it seems like we’re gonna have to produce an awful lot of electric batteries. Those batteries are have their own supply constraints, their own natural supply constraints. So will we be able to produce enough? And then finally, I think the question my wife always asks is, are there going to be enough electric charging stations, so that I can get from here to my mom’s place?

John Podesta  12:23

Yeah, you know, that IRA bill, the inflation Reduction Act morganite is wasn’t the only bill that passed, that creates a whole new industrial strategy in the United States, it went together with the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the chips and science act, to really I think, push this investment led strategy that the President had to buy America to build things here to restore manufacturing. But there are challenges in all of that. And you’ve mentioned some, the way the Evie tax credit works. It depends on sourcing critical minerals in the United States are with Free Trade Agreement partners are, in essence, our best friends and allies around the world, that assembly needs to be in North America. So there are a lot of models that will be covered by this bill to get the full $7,500 credit. But that’s a kind of work in progress. We’re counting on both getting the word out from the members of the administration. But most importantly, there’s excitement in the auto companies themselves to move to electric, they see where the industry is going there out there. If you watch the Super Bowl, and you’re seeing ads for electric vehicles on the Super Bowl, and now, with some help from the federal government, those vehicles are more affordable, the prices actually closing between internal combustion engine and electric vehicles.

Andy Slavitt  13:54

Do you worry about the minerals and the supply chain? And do you consider that a solvable problem? A solved problem?

John Podesta  14:02

No, it’s not a solved problem. But it’s a solvable problem. I think we quite frankly, the as we were talking about this, China was investing in trying to control particularly the parts of the supply chain that are closest to the mine. And that’s true in both in batteries where they had a very strong lock on the development of both critical minerals and battery technology, as well as in the solar supply chain where they control a lot of the upstream efforts on to make silicon ingots and wafers. We still practice that technology in the United States, but it’s going to take a lot of investment and we’ve seen that there was a massive investment in Georgia by […] to bring the solar supply chain back to the United States. We’re seeing As I said $100 billion of investment in electric vehicle batteries in the United States already now just since the bill was passed, because of the incentives to do that in the bill. But we need to work with our partners and allies to try to secure supply chains that are from reliable sources. We can’t be held hostage to an authoritarian regime that can cut off the supply.

Andy Slavitt  15:23

Right. When will my wife have those charging stations? Yes, that’s where you’re doing.

John Podesta  15:27

Back into the charging point. You know, we just had a major announcement with Elon Musk, with Tesla opening up its high performance charging to other vehicles, they had a proprietary system, but they’ve now committed to as they’re building out their tripling their electric vehicle charging across the country, the bipartisan infrastructure, why has $7 billion to build out 500,000 charging stations, we’re deploying that money to standards have been let the other big charging companies of finance that have been in the in this business are making additional commitments. So I think we’re well on our way to making good on those 500,000 charging stations.

Andy Slavitt  16:16

And what does that like? Is that a 20 minute charge?

John Podesta  16:19

Within 50 bucks.

Andy Slavitt  16:20

Got it. Let’s talk about the tax credits for clean energy production. There’s $60 billion in tax credits, this is some of the things you were referring to in terms of creating new industry creating new jobs. When you think about where these tax credits end up, do you think that the carbon betters today’s oil companies, they seem to be just masters at finding tax credits and reinventing themselves?

John Podesta  16:45

Well, they’ve lived off of it for 100 years. I actually think there, again, they have a lot of know how that will be brought to bear on things like green hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration, direct air capture, but those are all technologies that are that need to go down the cost curve that need innovation, and they have, you know, I think that will welcome them to the game, if the game is green.

Andy Slavitt  17:29

Yeah. Well, I have a question about the carbon capture, and sequestration has been basically person’s understanding is, you know that you’re able to capture carbon, either that’s already in the air or that’s being produced and then sequester it somewhere in the ground. You know, I think we, of course, prefer to keep it in the ground, that’s the best form of carbon reduction. But, you know, I watched with some interest, this initiative, I think it was from Occidental Petroleum, and there may be others, where they’re going to be selling this carbon capture technology, basically creating it and selling credits. And I couldn’t help but be a little bit cynical and feel a little bit jaded. And wondering, their net zero strategy, which they declare they have is to continue to grow their production of carbon, but to sell credits to offset that cabinet production in one of the kind of I believe it’s in southwest part of the US. So they’d be basically recapturing this in one place, but allowing people including themselves to continue to pollute in other places. So I don’t know if I see it right, or understood it right. But my sense was this carbon recapture, which feels like on one hand, with a holy grail and a nice technology to have. And the other, is it just an excuse to allow more carbon production.

John Podesta  18:44

There’s a transition phase, we’re still, we’re still using a lot of oil and a lot of […]. And we will, as the President said, and staying in union, we’re gonna keep doing that for a while. But eventually, we have to get to zero carbon sources. carbon sequestration can play a part of that both natural carbon sequestration that comes from climate, smart agriculture and forestry and better land use policies, etc. The CO2 comes, you know, comes out of the air through photosynthesis, and then stored in natural systems, but it can’t happen by permanent storage, as long as that’s well regulated. Yep. And there may be, there are going to be some applications for that. What we need to ensure is that there are viable pathways to essentially zero polluting sources.

Andy Slavitt  19:41

I just have this nagging feeling, John about the oil companies, and it’s the following. How do you get them to leave this oil in the ground? When it represents billions of dollars of their value? They’re some of the most valuable companies in the world are in everybody’s stock portfolio. That value is in part based on the assets and their balance sheet and those assets are their oil discoveries in the ground. And if we want them to keep that oil there and not take it out, it feels like that’s an awful lot of write off for them to have to take. So about, we’re only worried that they’re going to screw it up for us.

John Podesta  20:16

I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much interest in climate risk disclosure, it’s climate risk from operations, because of the effects of the extreme weather that we talked about, but it’s also a balance sheet climate risk, if those assets become less valuable, because we’ve actually are on our journey towards a cleaner future, a healthier future, a more secure future, more sustainable future that shareholders need to know that, you know, I don’t think that’s going to happen overnight. But I think that it’s not going to happen 100 years from now, either, we’ve got to start right now, making that transition investors are interested in that, they’re going to always people who dig in and try to protect the status quo. But I think the both the regulatory tools as well as the investments that are going to be enabled by this bill, push the whole system in a much more positive direction.

Andy Slavitt  21:23

Okay, I want to take one final break, we’ve talked about EVs. We’ve talked about tax credits, and I want to come back and talk about the third major area of investment in the climate bill, environmental justice, and whether it is really just for everybody. Let’s talk about the third element. There’s a lot of provisions. But the third major element I wanted to talk about was, you referred to this the environmental justice provisions are $60 billion to do all kinds of good and long overdue things, here in the US, for communities, largely, almost entirely, but not entirely, but almost entirely people of color, people in marginalized communities, Indian reservations, and they’re gonna be greatly disrupted. I’m also curious how you think about this provision applies here in the US. And there’s a lot of talk from, you know, middle income and developing countries around the world about, hey, we need climate justice, too. And in fact, you know, a lot of the Wealth of Nations can gird themselves with some of these large investments. But some of these other nations just simply can’t, and they’re going to be completely helpless. How do you think about that, I know may not be in the purview of what you’re working on right now. But it’s got to be a topic you think about?

John Podesta  22:57

Well, let me start with the domestic side first, and then switch the International. Again, right from the get go with the President and Vice President Harris tried to do is make sure that we didn’t just repeat the mistakes in the past, that the people who often bore the brunt of pollution for both from the power and industrial sectors, who benefited the least from that development carry the heaviest load with respect to bad health outcomes. What this bill does, is it gives major incentives to the private sector to locate clean energy investments in low income communities in in disadvantaged communities and tribal communities and rural communities, places that need that investment. And I think that comes in the form of enhanced tax credits for making investments in those places that comes in the form of support for lending into those communities. The EPA just started the process of setting up a so called green bank or series of green banks, whose mission will be to deploy capital into those communities. It comes in the forms of rebates that will go to low and moderate income households to be able to afford and install more efficient appliances, heat pumps, electrify their homes do energy audits. That comes on top of another initiative that Biden-Harris administration pushed forward, which is called the justice 40 initiative, which looks at all federal programs and pledges to deliver 40% of the benefits to those communities that would have been subjected to the worst outcomes with respected rather than justice. So that’s both a focus and a potential for a lot of investment in communities that have often been the dumping grounds for progress in other communities. So that’s the picture at home, one of the challenges is to make sure that communities have the ability and the technical assistance to be able to take advantage of those programs. So we’re working on that as well. At the global level, the President is trying to make good on his commitment for the US government to provide $11 billion worth of assistance towards that. But quite frankly, we need to change the equation through the overall development paradigm, make it much more climate friendly, ensure that the leadership, particularly the international financial institutions, like the World Bank, and the other multilateral development, banks are supporting clean development pathways. I think that’s what the developed economies want. But as you said, there’s a green premium, we have to reduce that green premium so that those investments can take place, the head of the World Bank just said that he’s leaving, that gives us the opportunity to put someone who’s passionate and seized with the mission of creating sustainable development pathways that take account of where the world is going with respect to climate change in place there, the flip side of that is, if we don’t do that, the problems we already have with climate induced human migration are going to be exponential.

Andy Slavitt  26:39

That’s a great point. I’m curious, John, your perspective on kind of the evolution of partisanship on this issue I’ve been, it feels like we’re a little longer to the point where Republican Congressmen are bringing snowballs into the US Congress to prove that the planet hasn’t warmed enough that we don’t have snow.

John Podesta  27:01

Or love to call into the Australian Parliament.

Andy Slavitt  27:05

Or that their freezers still work or that their hands can get solid or whatever. So it feels like we’ve evolved away from the stage of outright denialism yet. How much do you worry I’ve you and I both spent a fair amount of time and energy trying to prevent another law from getting repealed related to US healthcare, the Affordable Care Act? Is our progress precarious? Is it dependent on us having belief that we have today in these efforts to be successful? Or is it something that you think no, there’s a reason to believe that this can be sustained through different administrations Republican or Democrat?

John Podesta  27:47

You know, that risk still exists. But I think it’s going down. Because if you look at where public attitude is, in this arena, there’s very strong support for these clean energy policies that spreads. It’s extremely strong and likes Democratic voters, but it’s strong elects independents, and it’s even has plurality of majority support and much Republican. And I think that’s especially true, the younger you go and born. So anybody who is trying to appeal, even to young conservative voters has taken column of climate change. And that’s why as you said, they’ve gone from outright denial, to saying, Well, yeah, maybe it’s, you know, maybe it’s a problem, but it’s not that big of a problem. Right. But I think that, you know, the basic reality is, we’ll catch up with the politics. Yeah. And that reality is that year after year, we have greater damage from the current effects of climate change. Know are reported last year, highest on record $168 billion worth of damage from extreme weather.

Andy Slavitt  29:04

Is that a US number or worldwide number?

John Podesta  29:08

US number. You know, the billion dollar storms used to be a rarity. Now their common $10 billion storms or, you know, fire seasons, etc, are becoming a reality. I didn’t know I never heard except, I think maybe it was a movie title once what a Deadpool was. Now we’re actively trying to manage away from the dead pool and Lake Mead in the Colorado River. So as that reality overtakes the country, I think the Republican Party has to change or it will shrink, quite frankly, because I think younger voters even young conservative voters won’t stand for that.

Andy Slavitt  29:54

It’s really interesting to watch play out. It reminds me as we wrap up here, you In YouTube, a lot of thought to how, you know, frankly, what you’re doing every day, it sounds like it’s solving problems and creating opportunities using a set of resources that you’ve never had before. And it’s interesting, because I think you see, and I see that just to some degree, but obviously far less than you some of the battle lines that get drawn locally and that not always Republican Democrat. In here, though I live in California, you know, the battle over the Colorado River is seems like, really troubling stalemate. So I’m curious, as you’ve given that to attacking some of these big issues, how you think the country is going to be able to manage through and if there’s any keys to unlock, for kind of a more productive approach to dealing with these issues as they arise?

John Podesta  30:51

Well, the one I think cross cutting thing I would say about how it’s not a secret sauce, but it’s really crucial, is early engagement with affected communities. I think that if you wait to the very end, you know, I’m thinking about this from an environmental justice, sec perspective, or permitting perspective, or, you know, comes up in 1000 different ways. And, you know, six months since my return to the White House, if you engage early and try to find common dialogue, you’re going to end up with a better result, you can avoid problems. But in the end of the day, the project is the project, we need to build stuff in America, we need to build clean in America, we need to move forward with this transformation that’s aimed directly at solving the most basic human security problem that we’re facing, which is climate change. And so it’s going to take constant attention to improving the process, listening to people, but also cutting time, going faster. And those things seem to be in tension. But I don’t think they have to. Yeah, as long as we’re a tenant early, to listening to the voices of affected communities, we can get better outcomes, we cut time, we can build things. And the benefits of that are going to be enormous.

Andy Slavitt  32:31

One thing I didn’t think much about until this conversation is how much important part of your job and the job of implementing this law is the sales job in the sales job begins with listening as you said, Listen to communities but really getting people working in concert. John, um, I for one, I’m really grateful that you’re there in this role. The work you’re involved in, you know, has our future and our kids future in your hands. So thank you for enlightening us on kind of where things stand. I wanted to tell you one other thing before we drop, cracked me up when I found out I was interviewing you today, because the episode we released today I’ve got a I’ve got to tell you the title of the episode we released today. I think you’ll appreciate it. Inside the search for life beyond earth. Is that was that was an episode we released today. We had NASA’s Laurie lesson on and no, that’s been another passion of yours. Today’s John Podesta day all the way around.

John Podesta  33:28

My highlight of my day was I got to see the President I don’t think President every day but I got to do today. And he asked me how were things on Pluto. As your reference, I’ve been a longtime advocate of opening up the files to what we know about what has become a common term now, unidentified area phenomena. We can open up a little bit we can open up more but at least there’s an active dialogue between the government and the American people.

Andy Slavitt  34:04

It’s actually not considered fanciful any longer. It was a really phenomenal conversation. Nothing you probably don’t know, but great to hear it from the people at NASA.

John Podesta  34:13

Well, I’ve been a great admirer of your career. And I’m glad you’re doing the podcast.

Andy Slavitt  34:18

Thank you, John. So appreciate it. Thanks.

Andy Slavitt  34:35

Alright, thanks to John for joining us. Let me tell you, we’ve got a really interesting extended version of this conversation on Wednesday, where we’re gonna look at the role of oil companies and how they are going to play a role positively or negatively in getting to net zero and reducing carbon emissions, and I think it’s pretty controversial and untold story. We’ve got a great test. Some more of that and Morgan chose to come up two weeks after a good start. We will talk to you on Wednesday.

CREDITS  35:13

Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.

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