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The Climate 202

Why we need to ‘electrify everything’ according to Saul Griffith

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Did you know that a pro-fossil-fuel ride voiced by Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye was at Disney World until a few years ago?

🚨 A Washington Post investigation found that a highway under construction in Brazil could vastly increase deforestation of the Amazon, pushing it past the tipping point. More on that below. But first:

Why we need to ‘electrify everything,' according to this ‘genius’ inventor

Saul Griffith has a plan to combat climate change while creating millions of new jobs. It boils down to two words: "electrify everything."

The Australian American inventor is widely credited with popularizing the phrase, which refers to replacing every gas-powered cooktop, furnace and water heater with electric versions that are better for the planet and people's health.

The Washington Post previously spoke with Griffith, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007, as part of our Climate Visionaries series last year. The Climate 202 caught up with Griffith over Zoom this week about recent developments in U.S. climate politics and policy, including the uncertain fate of President Biden's climate agenda in Congress and what it means for the nation's climate goals.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity:

Climate 202: What do you mean by "electrify everything"?

Griffith: If we truly want to get to net-zero emissions, we can't make enough biofuels to do it. We can't do enough carbon sequestration to do it. We have to focus on what's actually going to work, which is electrifying all of our end uses — cooking, driving and heating your home — and powering them with emissions-free electricity from nuclear or renewables.

Climate 202: During the State of the Union, Biden argued that the climate provisions in his Build Back Better agenda would cut costs for families. Will that argument resonate with Americans?

Griffith: I've been an advocate of that argument for a long time. I absolutely believe the economics are in favor of climate action. The average American household could be saving $2,000 to $3,000 by 2030 through electrification. That's because driving an electric car a mile costs you 2 or 3 cents; driving a gas car a mile costs you 20 cents. Having a hot shower with an electric heat pump costs you 20 cents; having a hot shower with gas costs you 60 cents.

Climate 202: Build Back Better has stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Did Democrats make any missteps here?

Griffith: I think it's unfair to solely blame Joe Manchin, although there is a lot of culpability there, and he obviously has some ties to the coal industry that present a major conflict of interest. You can also add [Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)] to the list. But I think Democrats failed in a couple of ways before this even began.

Democrats didn't win a true governing majority in the election. Not having 52 or 54 or 56 seats in the Senate is quite a problem. It's bigger than the Joe Manchin problem, which everyone knew about before negotiations over Build Back Better began.

The other problem — and this is an unpopular opinion — is that the rollout of the Green New Deal and the intermingling of social policy and climate policy was unpopular from the beginning with all but that corner of the Democratic Party. So this is a spectacular case of overly complex, overly broad legislation that is difficult to pass, instead of clean, simple climate legislation that people can understand and pass and then do the social issues later.

Climate 202: If Congress fails to pass the climate provisions in Build Back Better, does America still have a shot at meeting Biden's goals of cutting carbon emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050?

Griffith: If you take a very cold-eyed view, we're nowhere near those goals. The U.S. is so far off target that you have to put your hope for dramatic climate action in some other part of the world, not America.

Climate 202: What, if anything, gives you optimism about climate action in America?

Griffith: The most optimistic things happening for on-the-ground climate action in the U.S. are being done outside the federal government, at the state and community level. You're seeing some great grass-roots movements to decarbonize communities in line with the 1.5- or 2-degree [Celsius] target of the Paris agreement. 

Climate 202: Have you seen more momentum for banning natural gas use in new buildings, as New York City did last year and as New York state is considering?

Griffith: I'm always wary of anything that sounds like a ban because that plays into the culture wars. But this is a good idea for climate reasons, health reasons and economic reasons. So this is a bright spot in climate action today.

Climate 202: Have you gotten pushback from the fossil fuel industry for advocating for electrification?

Griffith: I have. But they will not win their argument on the merits, on the economics or on the environmental aspects. So if they want to bring the fight, I'm here to take it. We will beat them this decade.

International climate

A highway in Brazil imperils the Amazon and the planet

The completion of a highway in Brazil known as BR-319 could vastly increase the Amazon’s destruction by opening it up to extreme violence and deforestation, pushing the forest beyond its tipping point. The Post’s Rio de Janeiro bureau chief Terrence McCoy traveled the road for more than 500 miles from Manaus to Porto Velho with a scientist and a photographer. 

The current stretch of highway, which lies within the core of the Amazon, is profoundly deteriorated. Scientists argue that the only thing protecting the swath of land around it — one of the region’s last stands of contiguous forest — is the road’s decay, which has prevented criminal land grabbers from passing through. 

But the newly paved road would allow armed criminal groups to exploit the forest through illegal farming, gold prospecting and logging. These groups are also suspected of killing conservationists who have investigated illegal deforestation. In 2020 alone, 20 environmentalists were killed, according to the group Global Witness.

Proponents of the road's completion, however, note that it would connect Manaus to the rest of the country. President Jair Bolsonaro, who has worked to ease and undermine environmental regulations to promote development, has said that paving the highway would fulfill “a wish of the Amazonian people.” 

The Amazon is thought to be at the precipice. If much more is lost, scientists warn, the forest could suffer destabilizing ecological changes that convert immense swaths into degraded open savanna. What has historically been a carbon sink could suddenly become a “carbon bomb,” upending the world’s efforts to avert catastrophic warming.

Climate in the courts

Appellate court rules agencies can temporarily use the social cost of carbon

A federal appeals court on Wednesday issued a stay that temporarily allows the Biden administration to consider the damage caused by climate change in its decisions, The Post’s Anna Phillips reports. 

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed an order issued last month by a federal judge in Louisiana that prevented federal agencies from considering the harm caused by one ton of greenhouse gas emissions, a metric known as the “social cost of carbon."

The appellate court's finding means that at least until there’s a decision on the case’s merits, the Biden administration can continue to use a higher interim social cost of carbon when issuing or revising rules. With sweeping climate legislation stalled in Congress, the administration is counting on these regulations to meet its emissions reduction targets.

Federal court upholds Trump administration's land decision in Alaska

The Trump administration was on solid legal ground when it approved a land exchange for a proposed road through a wildlife refuge in Alaska, a split federal court ruled Wednesday, reversing a lower court decision, Bloomberg Law’s Maya Earls reports. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gave a valid reason for moving away from previous findings that the road could harm species in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. In particular, the ruling says Bernhardt appropriately found that the road’s value to the King Cove Corp. outweighed the harm to environmental interests.

“Despite the frustrating setback, this fight is far from over,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, which joined the lawsuit. “We will use every tool available to protect the refuge and its globally significant lands and wildlife.” 

Agency alert

Granholm urges climate action while Energy Dept. approves expansion of gas export projects

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Wednesday urged Congress to pass the stalled Build Back Better Act, including its package of tax credits aimed at accelerating the nation's transition to clean energy.

During a roundtable with clean energy leaders hosted by Climate Power, Granholm said that while the investments in the bipartisan infrastructure law are an important step, “the rest of the president’s agenda is equally if not more important, which is the tax credits associated with building out this clean energy future.” 

At the same time, however, the Department of Energy on Wednesday approved the expansion of two liquefied natural gas export projects to counter Europe’s reliance on Russian gas amid the war in Ukraine.

“U.S. LNG remains an important component to global energy security, and DOE remains committed to finding ways to help our allies and trading partners with the energy supplies they need while continuing to work to mitigate the impact of climate change,” the agency said in a news release.

Granholm has had to walk a political tightrope in recent days, as concerns about Europe's energy security collide with the Biden administration's climate agenda. At the CERAWeek conference in Houston last week, Granholm asked oil companies to increase production to counter Russia in the short term, even as she urged them to embrace clean energy in the long term.


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