Climate Positive

Joe Britton | Supercharging federal climate policy

Episode Summary

Joe Britton is the Executive Director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), a federal coalition focused on advocating for 100% electric vehicle (EV) sales by 2030. ZETA is committed to enacting policies that drive EV adoption, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, securing American global EV manufacturing dominance, dramatically improve public health, and significantly reducing carbon pollution. In this episode, Gil Jenkins speaks with Joe about his experience working on climate policy on Capitol Hill, how the politics around the environment and energy have changed, and what that might mean for passing a massive clean energy incentives package that deals with emissions. Joe also talks about the future of transportation (hint: it’s electric), the top policy priorities at ZETA, the key consumer selling points for EVs and charging, and how to overcome common misperceptions in the marketplace.

Episode Notes

Joe Britton is the Executive Director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), a federal coalition focused on advocating for 100% electric vehicle (EV) sales by 2030. ZETA is committed to enacting policies that drive EV adoption, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, securing American global EV manufacturing dominance, dramatically improve public health, and significantly reducing carbon pollution. In this episode, Gil Jenkins speaks with Joe about his experience working on climate policy on Capitol Hill, how the politics around the environment and energy have changed, and what that might mean for passing a massive clean energy incentives package that deals with emissions. Joe also talks about the future of transportation (hint: it’s electric), the top policy priorities at ZETA, the key consumer selling points for EVs and charging, and how to overcome common misperceptions in the marketplace.


Note: Joe Britton (via Pioneer Public Affairs) is a registered climate policy lobbyist for Hannon Armstrong.

Episode recorded May 3, 2022

Email your feedback to Chad, Gil, and Hilary at climatepositive@hannonarmstrong.comor tweet them to @ClimatePosiPod.

Episode Transcription

Chad Reed: This is Climate Positive – a show featuring candid conversations with the leaders, innovators, and changemakers driving our climate positive future. I’m Chad Reed  

Hilary Langer: I’m Hilary Langer.

Gil Jenkins:  I’m Gil Jenkins.

Joe Britton: If you want Congress to do something, you have to make a public interest argument. I think in the past, some of the legacy autos didn't want to talk about pollution or emissions or public health because that reflected poorly on the other 98% of their business model. I think a lot of the EV community grew to this level where they needed their own voice.

Gil: Joe Britton is the Executive Director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association or ZETA, a federal coalition focused on advocating for 100% EV sales by 2030. They are committed to enacting policies that drive EV adoption, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, secure American global EV manufacturing dominance, drastically improve public health, and significantly reduce carbon pollution.

In this episode, I talked with Joe about what he learned from his experience working on climate policy for so many years on the Hill, how the politics have changed for climate and what that might mean for a passing a massive and important new clean energy incentives package to deal with emissions.

Of course, we also talked at length about the future of transportation (hint: it’s electric) and the top policy priorities at ZETA. We spoke at the key consumer selling points for EVs and charging, and how to overcome common misperceptions out there in the marketplace. I’m a big fan of EVs, having done some work earlier in my career in that space, and I also love talking policy, especially with straight shooting pros Mr. Joe Britton. So, here’s my conversation with Joe, I hope you dig it.

Hilary: Climate Positive is produced by Hannon Armstrong, a leading investor in climate solutions for over 30 years. To learn more about our climate positive journey, please visit

Gil: Joe, welcome to Climate Positive.

Joe: Thanks, Gil. Glad to be here.

Gil: Well, we like to start these shows by taking a deep dive into our guest and their journey into the climate space. Can you take us through your time largely on the Hill and how you came to focus on these issues?

Joe: I started back in 2003 with my home state senator, which is, as you know, a norm in Washington. Right out of college, I went to University of Virginia, and I had good career advice from our Career Services at UVA. They said a lot of times, people want to go home over Christmas, and these congressional staff, not everybody can go home because somebody's got a man in the office. They made a good point.

They said, "You should call and volunteer for one of your home state representatives or senators." I happen to call on the day that they were drawing straws of who couldn't go home for Christmas. I went up and met with Senator Nelson's chief of staff, a guy named Tim Becker, a really good guy. He handed me the key and said, "We'll see you in 30 days. Don't screw anything up."

Gil: You did that for about five years here in LA and you moved all the way up to Deputy Chief of Staff.

Joe: Yes, for Mark Udall. I moved over to Mark Udall's office in '09. Really, Ben Olson, he's a huge outdoorsman, big conservationist but there's different pockets of the climate world. It's clean air, clean water, land use, and Nelson was a big conservationist. Not really that I get full-throttle into climate until I got to Mark Udall's office. Senator Udall, the Udall family, there's just a famed history as most people know but Mark's wife, Maggie Fox was also Al Gore's Chief of Staff at Climate Reality and we were then pretty tied into the entire climate space. Really, starting in 2009 was when each and every day was spent working on climate and hasn't changed since.

Gil: For our listeners, in 2009, if you work in the climate policy space, an ominous period where Waxman-Markey, the last attempt before the most current attempt that a major piece of climate legislation was happening. I assume you worked on that. Any perspectives from that tough period?

Joe: The interesting thing, I think Waxman-Markey failed because of the politics in the sense that members were leery of whether this was going to hurt them in the election. I think now, I don't think anybody's terribly fearful about the political consequences of climate action. I think the public is behind Congress now. It's really the will. I think that's partly policy disagreements between the White House and Senator Manchin and a few others but some of it is personal.

I don't think there's a single member that wouldn't love to have an additional feather in their cap, then go take the voters and say, "Hey, we've done something really meaningful and solved a big problem on your behalf." It's no longer what it was. 12 years ago, there was a sense of, "Gosh, are the oil and gas politics going to catch me from behind?" I just don't think that exists anymore.

Gil: We can take some measure of hope in that. After Udall, you went to another great western Democrat and you were Chief of Staff for Senator Martin Heinrich from New Mexico. Tell us about why you made that switch and how you worked with one of our greatest climate champions in the Senate.

Joe: Senator Heinrich's office was right next to Senator Udall's. There's more detail to it but I joke that it was an arranged marriage between the Udalls because obviously, Senator Heinrich's counterpart in the Senate was Tom Udall who was Mark Udall's cousin but ultimately, it was Martin and Mark Udall's offices were next door to each other in the Hart Senate Office Building. After Mark lost as re-elect in 2014, I went to go work for Secretary Vilsack. In the secretary's office, I was managing the Forest Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency for the secretary, and those were Martin's bread and butter issues.

When he was looking for a new chief, we hit it off for a number of reasons but a lot of it was the policy and the conservation priorities that drove us both. Ultimately, it wasn't with Secretary Vilsack for all that long, which I regretted in a way because he's one of the more I think thoughtful, brilliant public figures that I've ever seen and worked with. He's really good on messaging. He gets the politics. He runs an enormous department as if it's like on the back of his hand. He just knows every corner.

Gil: That's right. That's why he came back to run it.

Joe: Again. I really respected Vilsack and he actually did me a real solid because I was torn. Senator Heinrich had asked me to go back and be his chief of staff. I think as a general rule if a senator asked you to be their chief of staff, you're trying to find a way to say yes but I was torn because I really appreciated Secretary Vilsack and working with him and I was right outside Secretary Vilsack's office. It was me, his scheduler, and then Vilsack. I saw him every hour every day. I had this other job opportunity. I wasn't thrilled with necessarily that our Chief of Staff let him in on it. Brian Baenig, he's a good guy, but he had told Vilsack, and so Vilsack came and he sat down, sat at my desk, and was like, "Hey, I get it. You'd be a fool not to do it."

Anyway, I went back to the Senate and worked with Senator Heinrich for five years. He's a really unique member. I think part of the benefits of being a younger member of the Senate really accrued to Senator Heinrich, he can cover an issue. He doesn't work on anything that he doesn't know really, really well. That puts him at a distinct advantage over members that may spread themselves too thin, or maybe just when you're 80, you may not be able to cover the policy terrain-

Gil: Sure.

Joe: -like a 40-year-old. Senator Heinrich is just- he's an action-oriented guy, nothing stands in his way. He's going to fight for things that he really wants and believes in. It's great for staff because if you have an opportunity to have a member who's going to be fully immersed and engaged in your issues, I almost couldn't even get through a sentence, talking to Martin about a critical issue without him picking up the phone and calling the White House or calling the cabinet secretary or calling the head of an organization. Like he's just so action-oriented, and that can be just a huge advantage in a body where I think sometimes the maintenance of the job gets in people's way.

Gil: What did you learn? You talked about some of the key traits and lessons from working with Senator Heinrich. What did you learn from all your bosses on the Hill and the agencies? Any things you take with you?

Joe: I've learned a lot from each and I think I said, Martin, he just doesn't take no for an answer. There's a huge advantage to that. With Mark Udall, it was the importance of taking the long view. Mark was at his best when he was trying to pull people together, people with disparate viewpoints, and in some ways, he measured success not in legislative terms or amendments, but whether the level of civility was improved by his engagement and part of a debate. That was the most important thing for him. Huge lessons to be drawn there. Maybe the ones that I wish I'd soak in more often.

Gil: [chuckles]

Joe: Then with Ben Nelson, it's almost like the bully pulpit. I'm actually shocked that more members don't do this, and we certainly try. Again, the maintenance of the job can get in the way. You've got so much incoming and scheduling requests and hearings and votes and speeches, and just the demands sometimes can be an impediment to doing the highest value work. Ben Nelson was really good at this. If there was an issue, I think you and I probably have issues every week that we read and we're like, "God, that can't be true. How are we stuck in this vortex?"

Ben Nelsons would say, "All right, I'm going to invite eight senators over for lunch, and we're going to talk about them." It could be bipartisan, could have been all Republicans, could have been all Democrats. It was actually interesting. In those days, Ben Nelson- CQ used to do their political ranking, so who's more conservative or progressive than others. Ben Nelson oftentimes was more conservative than several Republicans in the Senate. He had some ways the license to really reach into either caucus.

He was close with Schumer and he was somebody that was reflective of the state but tried to have some fealty to what was good for the team, but he could reach into either of the Republican caucus or the Democratic caucus and pull people together and say, "Hey, this doesn't make sense. Can we figure out a way to get through this?"

Gil: You left Senator Heinrich's office in, was it '19 or--?

Joe: Basically right when COVID was setting in.

Gil: Right when COVID was setting up. You were quietly building up your consultancy Pioneer Public Affairs in 2019, '20, you launched officially in 2021. What made you make that jump in a world of many specialists, government affairs, public affairs, strategic coms firms. There's surprisingly aren't that many with the real climate and conservation focus. Is that why you want to make the jump and use your experience on the Hill?

Joe: Well, interestingly, I'd started the Business Climate Initiative, which was a C4. Really the trajectory that I had intended to take was a little different than ultimately where it's gone today, but you take advantage of opportunities as they come, but I'd gotten to the point where I was setting this up and the thesis that I was bringing to this early on was that there were businesses out there that wanted to solve the climate crisis. It wasn't just about your environment, social and governance score on Sustainalytics or MSCI, or CDP. There was more to it than just signaling the investors that you cared. There was an intention to go and solve the problem.

I'd gotten to the point where if I was going to get it off the ground, I needed to be asking people for money, and I couldn't do that inside the Senate. I really put a lot of time and effort into going through it. I talked to some of the bigger firms, whether it was Morgan Stanley or J.P. Morgan to say, "Hey, you guys have an interest here." I think one of the things that I was a little disappointed in is that it seems like most people were interested in getting credit for trying to solve the climate crisis than actually solving the climate crisis. I think that's one thing that obviously distinguishes and sets [unintelligible 00:10:10] apart from many, many, if not most others, but at the end of the day, what I realized was the electric vehicle community was a perfect combination of decarbonizing the number one emitting sector in the economy but doing it in a way that's good for business.

It was a place where we could bring in a lot of folks who not only cared about it, but it was in their business interest to solve this problem. Now we have 60 companies that if you think about the utilities that are providing the power, the charging companies that are powering the vehicles, critical minerals, battery manufacturers, recyclers, and then obviously the OEMs, like Tesla and Rivian, Lucid, [crosstalk].

Gil: You set up Pioneer Public Affairs, which is a consultancy but then at the same time, you were just referring to also launch the Zero Emission Transportation Association or ZETA?

Joe: ZETA.

Gil: ZETA.

Joe: Yes, that's how it came together.

Gil: You've done the Business Climate Initiative, knew what would it take to stand up a business advocacy group, you needed the firm to do that and work with clients in this space. Then you saw a white space opportunity. Yes, there are EV trade associations, but no pure-play in these emerging companies in the ecosystem of other suppliers to support them, so you said, "Summer of 2020, I'm going to quietly build this and launch it because we're--"

Joe: Starting in April. ZETA is a subsidiary of the business, so I had the C4 already started. In part, it gave us the opportunity to quickly ramp and get going. Then once we had a little more capital behind us, we started the C3, which is the ZETA education fund, which allows us to do some other foundation-based public education, that sort of thing. It was a really timely opportunity to go and do something that I cared a lot about and there was strong support for.

Now we've got a pretty good size coalition now, 60 plus companies. I think one of the things that created the opening is that in the past, the big three autos, and I know you've got a history in the auto space, there was an ebb and a flow. Like there were years in the '90s, even late '80s where they were leaning into EVs, then they would--

Gil: For compliance reasons.

Joe: Right. Then the pendulum would swing back, and I think a lot of the EV community grew to this level where they needed their own voice. They felt like they were being governed by some of the bigger incumbent players in the space. That's what I think was the breakout opportunity for folks to have an organization that wasn't going to shy away from emissions and wasn't going to shy away from talking about public health.

If you want to make a public policy argument, you want Congress to do something, or the administration, you have to make a public interest argument. I think in the past, some of the legacy autos didn't want to talk about pollution or emissions or public health because that reflected poorly on the other 98% of their business model. It kept the EV community from really making much progress because they couldn't make a public interest argument because the big guys didn't want them to. Now we don't have any oil and gas or even oil and gas subsidiaries or folks making internal combustion engine vehicles. It's freed us up to talk about the merits of pure electrification and emissions reduction.

Gil: We're going to get into the future of electric transportation and priorities. Having cut my teeth on some of those early plugin hybrids and pure BEVs with Ford and GM. I don't know whether I'm encouraged that 10, 11 years later, we're at this moment where you've got- look what Tesla's done certainly, and look at Ford, we still have a soft spot for-- Put it in their Mustang, in their F-150, these iconic vehicles.

We're not talking about compliance cars anymore, but I think even back then, we had hoped perhaps we'd have a bigger market share in those 10 years still only about 5%. We're talking about 2030, what, 100% of new cars is electrified is the idea or 50%? Give us the big hairy audacious goal and then what are the priorities you're focused on to get there?

Joe: The organizing principle for ZETA is that we want to reach 100% EV sales by 2030. That's ambitious, but even that leaves a long tail. You've got a fleet that needs to transition over. If you think about every vehicle that drives off the assembly line in 2030 or 2031, that's a car pulling up to a gas station in 2050 or 2051. Even if we meet our goal, which is every vehicle sold is electric by 2030, you've got another 15, 20 years before the fleet fully transitions over.

One of the things that I think is important to distinguish is that we believe that incentives and the vehicles need to sell the consumer. There's been pushes for gas-powered car bands, and I think politically, that would be a setback for our larger effort if Americans felt like they were being told what to do. They need to be able to choose what's right for them and their family.

The tax incentives are the most important. The base tax is the 30D credit, which is the incumbent $7,500 that was included as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from 2009 and provides a credit for a new car buyer. There was a cap though. We put in there a 200,000 unit cap. Once Tesla and GM, and soon-to-be Toyota sell 200,000 EVs, they then cap. They can't offer consumers anymore of the credit.

It's a good way to catalyze specific companies to give them over the hump for scaling production, but we need to go further, which is, we need to actually make progress on electrification and drive. Not only a catalyzing element for startups to get them over the hump, but we need consumers to have the support to fully transition the fleet. The other thing is in the clean energy tax bill, which I think is the sleeper issue, is a credit for used EVs. That's important because 70% of Americans are not in the market for a new car. We sell about 15 million new cars every year, but there's 41 million used car sales every year.

Gil: Wow.

Joe: If you are only targeting 30% of the market, then you're really limiting your impact. I think having a used EV credit is important to turn over the fleet. You reach Americans further down the income scale. Then the question is, how do you prime, that secondary market and its fleets, its rentals, its leases? The more we can get two to three-year-old vehicles into that secondary market and provide a used EV tax credit, you're going to start to reach a section of the public that is not in the market for a new car and can then experience an EV for the first time. We've found that once you get somebody behind the wheel of an EV, they're 95% likely to never go back. Exposing more and more Americans.

Gil: It's a better experience. It's more fun.

Joe: Superior product.

Gil: Even if you're not a gearhead, there's just something about that low-end torque that even just trying to get on the highway, that's a little pleasurable, the quiet woosh. It's fun never having to go get an oil change or go to the gas station too.

Joe: Its torque, performance, fuel savings. We did a report two weeks ago, comparing AAA Gas prices to the Energy Information Administration electricity prices in each state. I think we did 16 to 18 state profiles. It's 5% to 600% more expensive to fuel your vehicle with gas than is electricity. It's not only torque and performance and superior product, there's real savings for consumers.

Gil: No question. I think that can't be said enough because the sticker price on average can be higher, but if you factor in total cost of ownership or you look at leasing, it's very competitive. Certainly, they hold resale value as well so if you're privileged enough to have an EV and thankfully, there are more options every year, the revolution is upon us and it does seem there's no going back. It's just a question of how fast, right?

Joe: Yes, totally. There's a lot of interest. I think the challenge now has actually hit EV manufacturers and traditional autos all the same, which is, there's going to be outstripping demand for cars. Period.

Gil: Can't get any car right now.

Joe: I didn't realize this, but there's--

Gil: They're all computers. They need the dollar chips.

Joe: It's chips, but also there's things that were produced- parts and components that were made in Ukraine, or-

Gil: Wow.

Joe: -you've got nickel coming out of-- The global supply chain is so interconnected. I think VW actually shuttered a plant in Europe just because parts and components coming out of Ukraine shut down. We're going to face more and more of this, unless we get a handle on our supply chains, which I know is important for Democrats and Republicans.

Gil: What's tough about this moment is, with gas prices peaking, this could be an incredible near-term opportunity for EVs, but they face some of the same challenges of getting any vehicle, so how to capitalize on that. Certainly, Google searches for electric vehicles are through the roof over the last two, three months, and then the availability. People, can they wait six months to get it?

Joe: Yes.

Gil: Maybe, but I think it's coming as we get more butts and seats, as they said [crosstalk].

Joe: I agree.

Gil: What about charging? I'm conditioned to think, and you may disagree, that some of the old stats I remember that like 85% of us still- the typical EV driver still charges at home. Most of us drive less than 40 miles a day. The questions about grid strain will come when there's a lot more EVs on the road. Certainly, fast charging is exciting and we need more fast chargers. What's the right balance of-- Certainly, we need to build out thoughtfully in specific areas. Is it just focused on fast charging, or what's the right mix of charging as you're doing all the forecasting and policy?

Joe: The way to think about it is, I think 70% of Americans are going to charge at home.

Gil: Right, 70.

Joe: If you've got a single-family home with a garage and a level two charger, that's going to be the best user experience. You'll wake up every single day with a full charge and it's fairly easy to do- manage charging. Most of these level two chargers, which you can get for a couple of hundred dollars.

Gil: I got mine on Amazon and I only have a garage. I'm just running across the lawn and my--

Joe: Gets the job done.

Gil: I just had the electrician put a 220 dryer outlet on the side of my house and that's all I need.

Joe: Exactly. You could do managed charging, you can set a timing, "I want this to charge between midnight and 4:00 AM," and that's where some utilities will give you a discount for charging, moving load to certain parts of the day to hit the valleys of power demand so that you take advantage of lowered pricing. The question then is the 30% that don't have a single-family garage. What do they do?

Gil: Renters.

Joe: They're living in an urban setting, multi-unit housing. That's where, to me, it's important to think through workplace retail multi-family on and off-street municipal parking, and those are all typically level two of that gap. Of that 30%, I'm going to give you 2%, which is maybe not the right way to think about it, but of the gap that we need to close that's not residential. You really want 80% to 90% to be level two chargers.

Gil: Right.

Joe: You could get a level two charger-- I actually did these numbers in preparing for the postal service testimony, but for $2,000 you can get a level two charger. That includes some installation at other costs. Most families, you could buy one for 500 bucks and put it in your garage. You're not going to get over a thousand, but for municipal fleets or others where you're putting in level two charging, it could cost $2,000. If you want a direct current fast charger, it can be 75 to a hundred thousand. There's certain use cases along transportation corridors, where-

Gil: Sure

Joe: -you're driving to grandma's house for Thanksgiving and you want to charge now. Those should be fairly distinct though and isolated in the sense that, it has to meet that use case because most of the time, cars are sitting for 95% of the day.

Gil: Unused.

Joe: You want to blend so you have the most ubiquitous access to charging possible. If you were to do all-- For example, with the 7.5 billion that was in the bipartisan infrastructure deal, if you did all direct current fast charging, all of it, you might get a hundred thousand chargers out of that. If you did a blend that was 80% or 90% level two, which is again, much cheaper, maybe 2% to 5% of the cost of direct current fast charging, you might get 4 million chargers out of that same bulk of money. It's all about a blend.

Gil: Is the Biden goal half? Was it 500,000?

Joe: His goal is 500,000. I think they'll exceed that. I think they can exceed 500 within his administration.

Gil: Will that allay the sometimes disingenuous critics and fears of the range anxiety do you think when we hit a 100,000?

Joe: I actually think there's change anxiety more than range anxiety.

Gil: Change anxiety.

Joe: Most people, if you were to pull up Google maps and just type in charging station, I think people would be shocked at how many charging stations there already are. You add 500,000 to a million more and range is- to me, is not the limiting factor. It is--

Gil: Utility or cost?

Joe: It's a different experience. We're so hardwired to say, "Oh shoot, I'm low on gas. I need to go and do something about it." That is like a trip that you make. With charging, it's not like an acute, "This is a five-minute moment that I am taking care of this one problem." It is, "I'm at church, I'm at work. I'm at the grocery store." I happen to prefer it because it's passive, right?

Gil: Right.

Joe: Charging is happening in the background.

Gil: Just a little top off or a little--

Joe: You're topping off, you're doing it-

Gil: A couple of miles here.

Joe: -when you're doing other things in your life and ideally, it's convenient and it doesn't take much time or thought. But to me, it becomes a normal part of life where you're all of a sudden now not going and having to go make that special trip. You're plugging in at home. You're plugging in at work, you're plugging in at the grocery and that's what we do here. We don't have off-street parking in DC. I'll plug in at trader Joe's, I'll leave the car overnight once a month, twice a month. When it's more universally accessible, I think hopefully it becomes second nature. People will realize how at least believe the way I do that, it's far better than going to the gas station and cheaper obviously.

Gil: We could talk so much about EVs, but I got some other things-

Joe: Yes, go for it.

Gil: -[crosstalk] because you wear a lot of hats. We're sitting here it's May 3rd. Today, we're sitting here in the fate of a federal climate package, clean energy tax incentives, largely in a reconciliation party-line bill. It looks tenuous, to say the least. What needs to have happened by the time this episode airs to ensure that we don't blow a chance to achieve absolutely crucial and significant emissions reductions to give us a shot at meeting our climate goals and have a healthy and stable climate and a strong economy by the center of this decade? There's a lot of ways you could go there, but break it down for those of us and our listeners who are following the swings and something Manchin said here and there, but what really has to happen?

Joe: Well, let's say four to five weeks from now, some fast-forwarding for listeners four to five weeks, what I hope that we're doing and if you think about the window that we have, I really think that we need to get something done on the clean energy tax reconciliation package, reconciliation, being the legislative procedure to afford you the ability to pass something with 50 votes. I think that needs to happen before the 4th of July.

When we come back, I believe the Tuesday after Memorial Day is I think May 31st, then we'll be ideally coming to the floor with a plan. Over the next four to six weeks, we need to figure out what is a deal that Senator Manchin and Sinema, and the rest of the Democratic caucus can agree to with the white house. They need to probably do that in the next couple weeks, that needs to be done by mid-May.

Then you're going to have a week of drafting. You're going to have to have the joint committee on taxation and the congressional budget office score it. You've got to go and make all the estimates and projections of what that costs. Then you have the bird rule process where you have to invite in the Republicans and you litigate procedural and parliamentary challenges before the parliamentarian and you litigate those issues.

Gil: All of this takes time, [crosstalk] floortime and member capacity when we're trying to do a perhaps a Ukraine package, another COVID package, a bill about semiconduc--

Joe: American COMPETES.

Gil: I don't want to dwell too much on why we're here at this moment a year and a half into the Biden presidency. He certainly said a lot of the right things on climate. We have our challenges with a closely divided Congress, but what could we have done better? Or maybe we should talk about that if we- depending on the outcome here, but certainly, we could have done some things better to not put ourselves last in line at a moment.

Joe: This goes to your timing question. I think that we need to come to a deal in the next week or two to have something that we're going to pass before July 4th. Hopefully, as this episode errors, we've spent that four to six-week intervening period drafting a bill, burdening the bill,

Gil: We're ironing it out.

Joe: We're on the floor, right? Ideally, we're on the floor mid-June and we're able to meet these deadlines. I think the number one thing, we have kept setting climate aside. There have been many junctures. The very first out to the gates, I think many people thought including myself, reconciliation as a parliamentarian or legislative procedure is tough. Doing that two times, three times in a single Congress, extraordinarily--

Gil: It's messy.

Joe: A lot of votes, a lot of rules. Many of us thought we should just do one bill early on in the congress, January, February of 21, and have that be the big achievement that carries us through. We ended up doing the rescue plan which was just limited to COVID. Obviously, justified priority in its own right. Then we went to the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. Those got introduced in an elegant sequence where the American Jobs Plan was like plan A and it included infrastructure and climate.

Then the Families Plan got introduced because I think there was pressure for the White house to be like, "Hey, what about the other stuff on the social side? Do you not care about that?" Then the Families Plan was introduced as a, "Oh, yeah, that too." Then we had all of that upended by the bipartisan infrastructure plan. Both of those were set aside to do just the "hard infrastructure" which is the easy stuff, right? The things [crosstalk].

Gil: Right. Row and bridges. Transportation. There's some good stuff in there, no question, but that's regular order stuff. We pass transportation bills every five years.

Joe: Then we left the hard stuff for later, and now this is the later. I think this interplay between the Families Plan and the climate priorities has been tough for the Democrats generally because you're pitting your friends against each other. There are some people that care more about climate. Some that care more about elder care and child tax care, all important issues, but you threw into the mix this really difficult churn that Democrats probably had a hard time litigating and now it's, "Are we willing to take something or do we want to go into the midterms and put climate on the shelf again?" I think many of us believe that it's not, "Hey, we'll do this next year," that this is-- If we're not doing it now, then we lose a decade or more that we can't afford to lose.

Gil: Going back to Waxman-Markey. We've had a decade where we've last- we're this close. I just think the White House really needs to get involved here. I was driving here, I found an old water bottle from the Biden-Harris campaign and said, "Secure a clean energy future." This was maybe even before Build Back Better, the slogans. I'm like, "It's the perfect time for that message. It was always a good time. Let's find the courage to do this and get it across the line." What's the operative phrase here? Take the deal? Make a deal?

Joe: Take the deal. I think the administration, they need to do this for a number of reasons. One, they ran on it. It is hard to overestimate how many folks who fought for this administration see climate as the top priority. Two, they've really made a huge mistake on the solar tariff issue. They're on the precipice of overseeing the biggest contraction in renewable energy in history. Maybe they can fix the tariff issue, but they certainly got to climb out of the hole for renewable energy, and they need these tax credits to do it.

There's been a lot of headwinds for this administration. COVID, Ukraine, Russia. There's just been so many impediments. This is one where we can do something about it. This is under our control. I think some of that stuff, there's many tough choices. This one should be easy.

Gil: Yes. I want to come back to, you've been working in politics almost what? Almost 20 years now?

Joe: Yes. Next year, it'll be 20 years.

Gil: As a hardened political veteran, what gives you hope when there's a lot of darkness on the edges?

Joe: Well, I wish it was our political system that's giving me hope. I think the thing that I'm most excited about, in some ways, the ascendant startups. We do a lot of that work. Companies that are really challenging incumbents and doing things in more efficient or more sustainable ways, that's, to me, pretty compelling and exciting work.

The market is full of innovators. There's a lot of opportunity, whether it's carbon capture, decarbonization, renewable energy, steel production. There are smart people racing ahead to figure out answers to some of these questions. I think where we fit in is to take those folks that your average member of Congress probably doesn't know about this breakthrough or this innovation. To me, it's exciting just to go and expose people to new innovative technologies that could really change things.

Then obviously, you sometimes have, "Hey. If we did this tax provision in a little different way, it could really catalyze the industry or really solve these problems." You're taking what is already an identifiable goal for a member or a committee, and saying, "Here's a way that, with some awareness and some foresight, we can do better." That's what really gets me going. I think from a partisan standpoint, there's actually some really good members, like Senator Braun from Indiana. He's one that I think many people were excited about his conservation grant. He also- to give you, I guess, diversity in thought, he also voted to not certify the election. Then you get incoming members like Senator Marshall from Kansas.

Gil: Right, big win state.

Joe: Yes. I think there's enough members where there's a strong center, but I think the challenge is, and I think right now, there's these discussions of bipartisan climate bills. I don't know that the center's big enough where there's 10 Republicans that are going to join Democrats on climate. Ideally, that changes over time. I think there's nothing like a thousand new jobs in your district to change your bias about any given policy, or issue, or idea, but this is a chance for us to do something really meaningful. I actually think, ironically, many Republicans, they don't want to be in the bind of overseeing a huge contraction in the space. They know that's not good for their communities.

Gil: It's not good for the youth vote under 40.

Joe: Exactly. Also, there's a lot of ranchers. You can get $15,000 a year for having a wind turbine on your farm, and you might have 10 of them. There's a diverse coalition of folks that I think want to see progress be made. I think many Republicans quietly want the Democrats to pass reconciliation, in some ways to take it off the table, extend these tax credits for a long time, not leave the problem to them.

Gil: To them.

Joe: Then you have probably some like McConnell that are happy to accuse Democrats of socialism and want [laughs] Democrats to pass the bill for that reason. I do think that even Republicans are looking back at Democrats and are like, "Hey. Get your act together here. We can't do this forever. Can you pass something and move on?"

Gil: Oh boy, from your lips. Let's turn to our hot seat. First one is fill in the blank. The most important advice I have followed is?

Joe: Get the small things right.

Gil: The most important feedback or advice I have rejected is?

Joe: I think people tend to micromanage a lot. I think if you read management books, it's you need to be the master of your domain. I think giving your staff and your team room to lead is really, really important. I think some of the early management books didn't necessarily encourage that sort of leadership and I think giving people room to breathe and to be creative and to lead is important.

Gil: What's the best analogy or idiom or metaphor about politics that you heard and would like to share with our listeners?

Joe: There was a guy, Andrew Patzman that worked for Mike Enzi and when I was with Senator Ben Nelson, he was one of my closest counterparts on the Republican side, but I loved Mike Enzi's quote. He was a shoe salesman before being elected to the Senate and his quote was, "You never waste time between the sale and the cash register." Hopefully, we reach that moment and there's a sale on climate and we rush to the cash register and get it done.

Gil: Good stuff. How do you connect with nature personally?

Joe: It's really tough in DC. We live in the city in part because you're driving for a long time. In the city, it's just so important for the kids to get outside so, we take advantage of the parks and the playgrounds. In Nebraska, where I'm from, it was fishing, it was hiking, my wife and I, our vacations, which we don't take a ton of, but almost always is to Montana.

We'll go to Chico or Yellowstone or Glacier, Flathead Lake, Kalispell, White Fish, that's where we like to break free from our phones and obligations. Obviously, we're hoping the kids are getting to the age where they can join us and enjoy those experiences, but it's a challenge and also we get so addicted to the news and our phones and updates, you need to find those opportunities to break free.

Gil: Good stuff, especially given what we do and what we're fighting for. Who's your climate role model or hero?

Joe: I have to say it's Mark Udall. He was the person most connected to nature in a way that he still had the ability and the drive to do something about it, but the Udall steps into this huge family legacy, and Mark, he's almost inhumanly kind and caring but has the power and the authority to do something about it. Mark is my north star on climate, for sure.

Gil: What are the top three books you have read recently about climate that you recommend for our readers?

Joe: You know what I really like is The Big Burn and it's a cool story about the origins of the forest service and how early on we started the forest service as a way to defeat and we thought that was like a achievable goal, we were going to defeat forest fires and ultimately over time, it became different, it became managing the land and landscape-scale restoration and watershed protection, all sorts of things now that we can use our forest to do.

In looking back, it was kind of- that was the failure and this was the forest service. There was a time where we considered it a failure that they hadn't defeated wildfire and I think now in the climate context, we see that as one of the more remarkable and visible signs that climate is worsening. I think that's a really cool book for folks to read and a little historical, which is nice.

Gil: Awesome. One last thing that we like to ask all our guests, finish this sentence, "To me, climate positive means--"

Joe: An environment in an economy where everybody's better off and that's totally achievable. We see evidence of it, but if we could invest in these clean energy tax credits, it's not asking anybody to sacrifice, it's not pointing to blame at anybody. This is literally going out and saying, we're going to invest in the sectors of our economy.

Gil: [crosstalk] pro-America, pro-democracy.

Joe: Exactly.

Gil: Pro-capitalism.

Joe: This is not this reordering of American society, this is saying, "Let's leverage our strengths to make everybody better off."

Gil: Right. Well, on that note, Joe, thank you for coming in.

Joe: Thanks, Gil. This was awesome.

Gil: Climate Positive is produced by Hannon Armstrong. If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, please leave us a leave a rating and review on Apple and Spotify, which really helps us reach more listeners. 

You can also let us know what you thought via Twitter @ClimatePosiPod or email us at

I'm Gil Jenkins. 

And this is Climate Positive.