White House Climate Official Ali Zaidi On Biden's Climate Law — And What's Next : The NPR Politics Podcast The U.S. just passed its first major climate legislation. NPR's Asma Khalid sat down at the White House with Deputy National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi to talk about what is next for the Biden administration's climate agenda and whether its policy legacy could withstand a future Republican administration.

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White House Climate Official Ali Zaidi On Biden's Climate Law — And What's Next

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Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. And today on the show, we're switching up the vibe a bit. I'm here at the White House to interview Ali Zaidi. He's the Biden administration's Deputy National Climate Adviser. We know that climate is a top priority for so many of our listeners, so we wanted you all to come along on the interview.

So, Ali, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast. We really appreciate it.

ALI ZAIDI: It's so good to be on with you.

KHALID: So I want to start with this big piece of legislation - the Inflation Reduction Act. It is the most significant investment to combat climate change in U.S. history. By the year 2030, it's expected to cut greenhouse gas emissions here in the U.S. by 40% from 2005 levels. That is almost to President Biden's 50%. But I actually want to ask you if we can step back for a moment because so many of our listeners, I think, were curious about - politically speaking - how this bill got over the finish line after looking dead so many times, specifically when we talk about the climate pieces.

ZAIDI: I think it's the durability of the coalition that backed this. I, you know, reflect back often to around this time period in 2020. We were on Zoom sessions at the time because of the nature of the campaign - the president in his white polo shirt sitting on the front porch in his Wilmington home and talking through the tax policy, the investments, the loans, the grants, but talking about how that was going to be designed in a way that brought together labor and young people and rural and urban. I think he really crafted this to be responsive to the coalition he wanted to bring together, and that's what made it stick.

KHALID: So even with this legislation, it doesn't get you fully to the president's goal of that 50% that we had just mentioned. So help me understand, you know - how do you all get the rest of the way? What happens to that missing 10%?

ZAIDI: I think we're going to see a much stronger response from the private sector than the legislation anticipates, so we've already...

KHALID: Help me understand that. What do you mean?

ZAIDI: Yeah. So, you know, the legislation anticipates some amount of catalytic investment from the private sector into manufacturing, into deployment of solar and wind. But every step of the way, over the last two decades, we have underestimated how quickly clean energy costs would come down and how quickly clean energy deployment would ramp up. And if you want to take a - I think just a snapshot in time - and this is not scientific. But just in two weeks since this bill got signed, we've seen billions of dollars flood into investments in solar, investments in batteries, investments in even heat pumps - the stuff that helps you electrify homes - to manufacture it here, to deploy it here.

KHALID: So Ali, do you see room for more executive action? And I guess I'm also wanting to understand your political sense of that because I do think there are folks who will say, you know, look, some of the efforts made by President Obama in the - you know, some years ago were ultimately undone by conservative courts.

ZAIDI: Well, here's what I'd say about some of the initiatives under the prior administration. The methane emission standards - the, you know, the pollution that comes out of oil and gas - that got rolled back, but the industry moved in the right direction. There's a lot more work to be done, which is why we've already proposed new methane rules that go above and beyond anything that was done in the Obama administration. And the industry - and frankly, the workers have been largely supportive of making these investments to bend down methane emissions.

KHALID: So if I'm understanding you correctly, you're almost saying that even if, ultimately, courts decide to perhaps rescind some of these executive actions, by putting forth an executive order, it pushes the industry.

ZAIDI: Yeah. The power plant rules that Obama set up got stayed by the Supreme Court. They got rolled back by the Trump administration. We've already met those targets ahead of schedule relative to what was set in the regulations. So I do think there's an incredible ability to drive change in the marketplace by setting robust, rigorous standards that reflect where we think the market can go. And I think the market can go faster and faster because of the investments we're plowing in now...

KHALID: So should we anticipate additional executive actions? I guess I'm curious - what else are you thinking of at this moment?

ZAIDI: We've already got executive actions that are coming down the pike. For example, we said we were going to do a next round of methane emission standards to catch that flaring that you see off of those oil and gas production units. That's coming this fall. We've already got in train standards for trucks and for cars that are going to get revised. That's in train. That's moving forward. The EPA administrator has been out there talking about standards we need to set for power plants. That's in motion at the EPA. So in every sector of the economy, we got to set smart, strong standards that are grounded in science, that are grounded in public health benefits. And what's exciting is, now, what that means - because of this investment - is it's going to pull on this entire new supply chain - this manufacturing capacity - to build those technologies, those clean technologies, here in the United States.

KHALID: So I want to ask you more about this big bet on manufacturing, on American manufacturing, because it's not just here in the Inflation Reduction Act. You see this in the CHIPS Act. You see this in quite a bit, I think, of the president's legislation. There's this thought that the U.S. can be a leader on things like solar - you know, solar panel manufacturing, computer chip manufacturing, a whole bunch of things. And that's going to take, I think, some degree of major investment here in the United States, and I think that there are skeptics who will say that there were - there was an effort to do this in the past. And folks will say, well, what about solar tariffs, for example, under President Obama? So how realistic is this goal, to have the U.S. become a major manufacturing economy?

ZAIDI: I think it's...

KHALID: And maybe I should say manufacturing economy again. 'Cause, I mean - yeah.

ZAIDI: Yeah. So look, I think what we've struggled with in the past in the United States is taking a comprehensive approach, right? So we show up with tariffs, or maybe we show up with certain rules, maybe we make a few grant investments, but we don't come to the table with this comprehensive industrial policy strategy. And just to break down what that means - 'cause I think we're seeing it in solar, right? - we've had, just in the last few days, people announce billions of dollars of investment in solar panel manufacturing, silicon wafer manufacturing, the polysilicon itself. And it's because the way this tax credit's structured, it incentivizes each of those pieces, like the whole waterfall being manufactured here in the United States. And then it doesn't just do that. It also says we're going to create a demand signal to deploy all of that in the United States.

So people look at the clean energy tax credit and they say, oh, well, there were clean energy tax credits before, there are clean energy tax credits now. For the first time ever, if you want to build wind project in the United States, you've got to have that steel, those turbines, those blades coming from the United States if you want the full credit. You've got to have people being paid prevailing wage and have apprenticeships if you want the full tax credit. And if you want the full opportunity, you're going to be deploying it in disadvantaged communities.

So we're taking a comprehensive approach. President talks about winning the full finish line - that's what we're going to do. And, you know, it strikes me - we were driving from the airport to the factory in Dearborn, and the president was reflecting on how this battery technology had been pioneered at our national labs, at Argonne National Lab in Chicago. Solar technology had been invented here in the United States just a few decades ago, and we weren't competing - not because we were bad at the technology, but because we'd failed to invest in our workers and invest in our consumers and the demand side to pull all of that through. We're finally doing that, so I think this is a - this is the first time we're actually giving it a shot with a comprehensive playbook, and that's why I think we're succeeding and we're going to succeed.

KHALID: All right. Let's take a quick break and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. I want to ask you, though, about how durable you think some of these achievements are because - let's walk through kind of a worst-case scenario here, which I am sure you'll maybe not be too comfortable doing, but say Democrats lose the House and the Senate, right? Let's fast-forward, even, and say a Republican president is sworn in in 2025. More conservative judges and justices are confirmed. How durable are the achievements that you are putting into place now that you think that they will be able to withstand all of that?

ZAIDI: So this is a great question because this is the question the president asked his campaign team, then he asked to us when we walked into the White House, he asked us this every step of the way. And he's got a term for it. He says, I want to make irreversible progress.


ZAIDI: And here's

KHALID: So what does that mean? Yeah.

ZAIDI: ...What I think that means - when a company decides - a car company, they decide they want to produce electric vehicles, they set up, essentially, the factory for six to eight years to produce that kind of vehicle, right? So they haven't made a bet on the conviction of a year of good policy in Washington. They've now put steel in the ground that will require them to produce a certain type of thing for the next six to eight years.

KHALID: So it sounds like the manufacturing investments you feel are the most (inaudible)...

ZAIDI: So that's the manufacturing, right?


ZAIDI: And then on the deployment side, 1 in 7 of the clean electrons that are floating around on the grid today...


ZAIDI: ...One in seven - there are about 60 million homes' worth of clean electricity on the grid. One in seven of that was installed during the Biden administration, just in the first 18 months or so. We're about to double or triple the pace of clean electricity deployment. So now we're not talking about manufacturing. We're talking about using those technologies, right? If we're deploying at that pace, we're going to be in a place within a few years where a preponderance of the grid is powered by clean electricity. No one's going back and taking solar panels and wind turbines out of the ground and replacing it with dirty energy.

KHALID: So you're anticipating a deployment of - say, like, in the next year, you anticipate, what, like, double the amount of deployment? I guess I'm trying to understand when you talk about that level of deployment, what's your timeline?

ZAIDI: So we've seen - we have broken records on deployment of every kind since we took office - solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles. We're seeing that double or triple within the next few years.

KHALID: Within the next few years - so while Biden's in office, you would say.

ZAIDI: Yeah. Yeah.

KHALID: I have one final question for you. It's a bit of a news-you-can-use question because I always think that's handy for listeners. So, you know, this climate law does offer incentives to consumers - right? - as well. I know we spent a lot of time talking about the manufacturing side of this all. Can you give us an example for - I mean, say, for example, are there specific subsidies or credit programs that you would highlight that allow Americans to do something that - or do something more easily that they could not do before?

ZAIDI: Yeah. So we used to have a electric vehicle tax credit. Now, we have one for 10 years. It's really exciting that we now get to make it affordable and accessible for the years to come. What didn't exist before was a tax credit for used electric vehicles. Now, I think about...

KHALID: So if you resell your Prius, for example.

ZAIDI: Yeah. But I think about, you know, the first car I bought was a '96 Buick Park Avenue. Now that, by the way - don't call me out - that was not fuel efficient. But for the kid or frankly, for a bunch of families - when my family moved from Pakistan to the United States, our first car was a used Oldsmobile. Folks can now go - if a car costs 14,000 bucks, they'll knock 4K off the top of that with this tax credit. They can get it in a used electric vehicle and never have to pump gasoline into that car ever. And you think about it, the gasoline equivalent to charge your car, it's about a dollar per gallon. So that's a big...


ZAIDI: I think that's a big thing. The other, I think, part of this is - to me that's really exciting is, you know, I got pulled into this policy area - I love hugging trees, to be clear. But I got pulled into this policy area because I saw this as a way to help the poorest, the folks who had, you know, ambition in their belly that wanted to reach into the middle class. You know, we grew up - when we moved to the States, we grew up initially in USDA subsidized housing. This bill provides tax credits and investments directly, like, targeted to things like rural cooperatives so that they can go deploy clean energy. It includes targeted loan money to retrofit multifamily housing that's supported by HUD, federally subsidized housing - retrofit that. It has a billion and a half dollars to plant trees in formerly redlined communities that are literally hotter today because there's more pavement and fewer trees.

This is a climate bill, but I think it's an opportunity bill for folks looking to get in the middle class. It's a social justice bill for the communities that have been left behind. I mean, one of the things that's so esoteric - right? - is our tax code. How many people sit there and read through the tax code? - not a lot of people. I do. And I've never seen tax credits say you get 10% more tax credit if you're in a community that's been left out and left behind. That's never been the case before. That's a game changer. So that's what's exciting to me is woven through the DNA of this bill, to me, what I see is back to the coalition - the labor folks, the young folks, the rural folks, the poor and the middle class who have not had a seat at the table.

KHALID: All right. Well, Ali Zaidi with President Biden's climate team, thank you very much. We really appreciate you taking the time.

ZAIDI: Thanks so much.

KHALID: So shortly after I spoke with Ali, I went down to our NPR booth at the White House. I wanted to put what he had said into context. And to help me with that, I decided to call up NPR's Laura Benshoff. She covers climate and energy.

Hi there, Laura.


KHALID: So, Laura, I am so glad that you're able to join us because I do think it's helpful to me, helpful to listeners to put some of what Ali was saying into context. So I want to ask you first about this issue of deployments. We heard Ali refer to the large amount of deployments that had already taken place by August of 2021 under President Biden. You know, how much of that is credit to President Biden? How much of that was just raw momentum that's already there in deploying clean energy?

BENSHOFF: I mean, I'm looking right now at a graph of solar installments. The line was already going up before Biden took office. And it continued going up. So a lot of that momentum was there. Costs for solar and wind were going down. It was becoming more competitive. And that's been pushing this adoption up. But I do think the Biden administration can take credit for what's in the Inflation Reduction Act and kind of really avoiding a slowdown that the industry - the renewable energy industry - was predicting if that didn't happen. They saw this plateau coming because of supply chain issues, because of some other regulatory issues, and that deployment was really going to slow down. And now, with the Inflation Reduction Act, some of those barriers should be lifted.

KHALID: You know, Laura, you mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act. And one thing that I hear from supporters of that legislation - and certainly we heard from Ali - is this big bet on American manufacturing and the ways in which clean energy can be bolstered here in the United States as a result of - essentially trying to boost the manufacturing economy again here in the United States. I'm curious how realistic you feel those goals are.

BENSHOFF: You know, one thing that's interesting is that just the timelines on this bill from everyone I've talked to make it much more realistic, right? You need a really stable investment environment for places to build up these huge supply chains. You can't just do a year or two of investment and expect an entire supply chain to appear, you know, in North America or in the United States. And so I think that potentially makes a huge difference into how successful some of this sort of reshoring or near shoring of U.S. manufacturing is going to be. And I also think the context of the last couple of years has shown people and has given people - and politicians in particular - this language around so-called energy independence. This is now a buzzword. Whether or not, you know, that term actually means anything in a global energy market, it has given a kind of push and support for the U.S. making sure that it has the means of creating its own energy.

KHALID: You know, Laura, we've been speaking here about climate action taken through legislation. But the other part of my conversation with Ali was focused on executive actions that the president, that agencies under President Biden can take to essentially help meet some of the president's climate goals. And one thing I was struck by is Ali's argument that essentially whether or not conservative courts rescind some of these executive actions, there's momentum built up to essentially elicit change. What did you make of what he was explaining there?

BENSHOFF: You know, I think he has a point there. And I think there's a couple of interesting things to draw out. One is just that the EPA, which is the big regulatory body, pretty much always gets sued. I think we can expect whatever, you know, new carbon emissions guidelines or other polluting greenhouse gas guidelines that come out, they are probably going to get sued over. But when there are these financial supports in place, when you can show that, you know, you're providing funding to make the switch, or when you can show that industry is already behind some of these changes, it just makes those cases a bit harder for the critics to win. And so I think that that is one point, is the massive amount of funding in the Information Reduction Act, from what experts have told me, is kind of a bulwark against some of these legal challenges.

And two, you know, we have to also look at the states and local governments. It's not just the federal government that's trying to do this. Industry is taking signals from places like California and Maryland that have their own climate policies at the state level. And if they want to operate in those markets, they're going to have to start making changes anyway. So there is something to this idea that once the momentum starts moving, an industry, again, has to make these long-term planning decisions around their investments. It's pretty hard to just stop.

I do want to, I guess, maybe fact-check one thing that I think he said about how the Obama Clean Power Plan was never implemented but ended up meeting its goals anyway. You know, some of that was, I'm sure, due to the regulation and the way the market was moving. And some of that was just that natural gas got really cheap. And that Clean Power Plan was all about replacing coal with natural gas. And the market kind of took care of it. Natural gas became so inexpensive that coal became less economical and kind of ended up achieving what the Obama administration had tried anyway.

KHALID: All right. NPR's Laura Benshoff, thank you so much for providing that additional context. We really appreciate it.

BENSHOFF: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House. And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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