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The Weekly Planet: What Donald Trump Taught the Electric-Car Industry

Every Tuesday morning, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.


One of the stranger things that has happened during the Trump administration—a category with no small amount of competition—is that the car industry and the oil industry have grown to resent each other.

This is more significant than it might seem. For decades, Detroit and Houston had a great, if unconventional, friendship: Car companies were well liked and well unionized, the makers of mechanized chariots that took Americans wherever they wanted to go, while oil companies were the grimier, greedier dealers of the magic juice that made those chariots run.

Automakers and oil companies grew up together, they hung out together, and they fought environmental and efficiency rules together. Their interests aligned: The more cars sold, the more oil burned; and the beefier the car, the more everyone made. Everyone benefited—except drivers, pedestrians, asthmatics, and future inhabitants of the Earth’s climate system, but where were those guys on the S&P?

But under President Donald Trump’s influence, the oil-and-gas industry has turned on car companies. First, it engineered a repeal of car-pollution rules that was so revanchist, so pro-carbon, the auto industry refused to support it. Then the White House killed a bipartisan deal to extend a tax credit for electric-car buyers, hurting Tesla, General Motors, and electrical utilities to the benefit of foreign automakers and the oil companies. American automakers were also walloped by Trump’s trade war with China.

Some of this drama originated from plain old oil-company rapacity. But much of it arose from the coalition-splintering effects of electric vehicles, or EVs. For decades, oil-and-gas companies, automakers, and electric utilities have had a tight and mostly united set of interests in Washington. But EVs ruin that harmony: They pose an existential threat to oil majors, because each additional EV on the road depresses gasoline demand. But to automakers and utilities, they represent the next great market.

Now, as the administration turns over, this new dispensation is being formalized. The electric-car industry is getting a lobbying group.

Today, more than two dozen automakers, electric utilities, EV-charging firms, and lithium companies are forming a new advocacy group devoted to pushing for electric cars on Capitol Hill. It’s called the Zero Emission Transportation Association, or ZETA.

“Our goal is to change politics so that every new vehicle sold by 2030 is an EV,” Joseph Britton, ZETA’s founder and director, told me. ZETA won’t look for regulation that requires anyone to buy an EV, he said. Instead, it will push for policy changes that make EVs irresistible to consumers.

In other words, ZETA will lobby Congress to build EV chargers, subsidize EV purchases, and help companies that make electric cars rapidly achieve scale. ZETA wants Congress to toss EVs virtually every kind of investment in its toolbox: A future stimulus bill, infrastructure package, and round of tax cuts could all be made to help nourish the EV industry.

Such help is necessary, Britton said, for more than climatic reasons. China, as I wrote last week, has poured billions into its EV industry, with hopes of taking a greater share of the global auto market from the U.S. and Europe. And the early pandemic shortages of tests and protective gear showed the drawbacks of a denuded industrial base. A vigorous EV industry can reestablish the power of American manufacturing—and offer the one thing that no lawmaker can turn down, Britton said: “We can create jobs in every congressional district in the country.”

Tesla and Uber are among the 28 inaugural members of ZETA. So are the electric-truck start-ups Rivian and Lordstown Motors, and the utilities Southern Company, PG&E, Duke Energy, Con Edison, and Salt River Project.

I’m never sure what to call the set of industries we need to fight climate change—the sector that encompasses solar panels, wind turbines, electric stove tops, and electric cars. Some people call it “clean tech,” but that reminds me alternately of Mr. Scrubbing Bubbles, the anthropomorphic brush, and of Apple computers from the early 2010s, gleaming unnaturally white. I prefer climate tech, but it isn’t perfect. A coal-fired power plant is climate tech in a sort of roundabout way. When geoengineering goes awry in a movie… that’s climate tech too.

Anyway, this sector—the climate-tech-but-not-in-a-geoengineering-way sector—is consolidating power in Washington. In September, some of the country’s largest energy companies merged with a wind-energy-advocacy group to found a new lobbying shop devoted to renewables: the American Clean Power Association.

The two new groups are “a classic example of what policy folks would call policy feedback,” Matto Mildenberger, a political-science professor at UC Santa Barbara, told me. “You create a new industry that creates a new set of interests that creates new bedfellows, and as that industry becomes more successful, it feeds back and increases the strength of the policy.”

Mildenberger, who favors aggressive climate action, said that ZETA’s establishment should encourage environmentalists. “It is always a good thing when powerful corporations come together to push for things that are objectively necessary.”

Yet the arrival of climate-friendly trade groups marks a new moment in the fight against climate change. For the past three decades, trade groups—the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, even the Association of American Railroads—have almost always pushed to block aggressive climate policy.

One of ZETA’s big aspirations is to build support for EVs in a bipartisan way. Britton has worked for moderate Democrats throughout his career—he was most recently the chief of staff for Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico—but ZETA’s small staff includes members of both parties. And ZETA has an inherent advantage when appealing to Republicans, Britton said: Many GOP lawmakers drive Teslas, and love them.


Someone Else’s Weather

Rui Coelho

Today’s photo comes from Rui Coelho, on Guincho Beach, Portugal. He notes that this stretch of coastline, near Lisbon, “changes its scenery every day depending on the weather, winds, and … difference of temperature in the water and on land.”

Every week, I hope to feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email weeklyplanet@theatlantic.com.


When We Last Spoke…

Two weeks ago, I reported that Jeff Bezos had started doling out grants from his $10 billion Earth Fund. The Amazon chief executive had selected five mainstream environmental nonprofits, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, to receive gifts of $100 million each. Four smaller groups would receive smaller gifts, I reported.

Yesterday, Bezos confirmed my reporting and announced the first $791 million in grants. His list of grantees included some groups that I had not previously reported would receive money, including the NDN Collective, a group “dedicated to building indigenous power,” and the Solutions Project, an environmental-justice group that supports a transition to 100 percent clean energy.


3 Energizing Things

1. Hurricane Iota briefly became a Category 5 storm yesterday before making landfall in Nicaragua as a weaker storm, meaning that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has broken another record. For the first time ever, five years in a row have produced a Category 5 storm. In fact, there have been seven Cat 5s since 2016. We still don’t understand exactly what climate change does to tropical cyclones, but one hypothesis is that the warming planet acts as a kind of sieve, quashing weaker cyclones while ensuring that storms that do survive achieve a higher strength.

Ben Moon / Rivian

2. The electric-truck maker Rivian started accepting preorders for its first SUV, the R1S. If you blanched at the $112,000 cost of the electric Hummer, then congrats! The R1S starts at a downright affordable $70,000. That’s still more than the average American makes in a year, but hey! It’s electric.

More seriously: Rivian’s design language, with its candy-bar eyes and linear tail light, is my favorite of this generation of electric trucks. And it suggests that the EV transition will also make cars look cooler.

3. You may have seen a study this week arguing that global warming has already lapsed into a runaway feedback loop—and that, even if humanity stopped emitting carbon pollution, temperatures would keep rising for centuries. I don’t trust this study, and experts are skeptical of it too. While the topic that it investigates—permafrost melting—is a legitimate place of inquiry, this study uses a simplistic model to reach overly broad conclusions.

Here’s some reasonably good news: An official at the Federal Reserve let slip during a hearing last week that the bank has applied to join the Network for Greening the Financial System, an international consortium of central banks working to fight climate change through monetary policy. Separately, the Fed also said for the first time last week that climate change poses a material risk to financial institutions.

One of the most important actions the U.S. government could take to fight climate change is simply to define what constitutes a “green bond,” a move that would immediately establish rules and a market for climate-friendly investments. The Fed’s application means it may be inching closer to taking that step. President-elect Joe Biden’s recent electoral victory probably helped too.

(If you’re curious about this topic, I recommend reading my 2019 interview with the historian Adam Tooze, “What the Fed Could Do to Fight Climate Change.”)


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