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U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on the infrastructure bill and climate change

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that cleared the Senate Tuesday represents the largest investment in green energy in United States history. But it faces a tough road ahead in the House of Representatives, where some progressive Democrats say it's not enough to address the climate crisis. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    The bipartisan infrastructure bill that cleared the Senate today represents the largest investment in green energy in U.S. history. But, it faces a tough road ahead in the House of Representatives, where some progressive Democrats say it's not enough to address the climate crisis.

    We explore the Biden administration's plans to address climate change with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

    Secretary Granholm, great to have you on the NewsHour.

    I want to ask you about this U.N. report that came out yesterday. It stated unequivocally that humans are driving climate change and that climate change is driving these catastrophic effects that will only get worse if we don't act quickly. I just have to imagine that that report sets off alarm bells within the administration. Is it?

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    Well, it certainly is not a surprise. This was a pre — it was follow-on to a previous report that was similarly alarming, but this just makes it so abundantly clear, especially at a moment where we're seeing wildfires in the West, when we're seeing historic drought, we're wildfires all over the world.

    So it really is an exclamation point on the president's agenda to address climate and to make sure that we capitalize as a nation, as well, I would say, on making the products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. So, capitalizing both on the urgency of the moment, but also the economic opportunity of the moment.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, there are two infrastructure bills being negotiated in the House and the Senate right now, and those will be some of the major tools that the administration would use to help fight climate change. In those bills, what do you see as the most crucial elements and do you think that they will survive negotiation?

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    We're very optimistic. I mean, the fact that we got 19 Republicans to join all of the Democrats in this bipartisan bill in the Senate suggests that there will be bipartisan support in the House and then, of course, the second step is the reconciliation bill.

    So what's most important? Number one, the investments in the grid that were part of today's vote. That is very important. The investments in the electric vehicle infrastructure that were part of today's vote, again very important. The investments in the battery technologies that will allow for electric vehicles to be price competitive with the gasoline-powered vehicles.

    In the next step, the long poll in the tent really is the clean electricity standard, and that CES is going to require that we get 100 percent of our energy from clean sources by the year 2035. There is a version that the fact we get 80 percent of our clean sources by 2030. Either one of those is a very strong statement about where we are headed as a nation, and you utilities and fuels will respond.

    And then, when you couple that with the tax credits to incentivize the private sector to be able to build out the wind, the solar, the hydropower, the clean technologies and energy that we need, that is a game changer for us. It means we really will be able to respond to that United Nations report.

  • William Brangham:

    Separately under the Department of Energy which you oversee, are there other particular elements, tools in your toolbox in particular that you think are useful in this fight that need to be deployed?

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    Oh, for sure. I mean, we have 17 national labs in the department of energy. We are the solutions department. So when it comes to next-generation technologies, whether it's for batteries for the electric vehicle or for batteries for storing renewable power on the electric grid, that's where we come in.

    We have developed a series of what we call "Earth shots", which are big, audacious goals to reduce the cost of technologies that will enable us to have clean power, be even more cost competitive than fossil fuels, as they — I mean, right now, wind is free. Sun is free.

    But we've got to make sure that we get it on the grid and we reduce the costs associated with them. The technologies associated with hydrogen, for example, which could be a game changer in terms of being able to store and export renewable energy. All of those — that's come right out of the Department of Energy. So we want to do those advanced technologies and deploy the technologies that we know are off the shelf and ready to go.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear all the optimism that you're describing, but in the last eight years since the last U.N. report, global emissions have only grown. In the last five years since the Paris Accords were signed, emissions have only grown. It seems we are tiptoeing towards substantive action when the science indicates we need to be sprinting.

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    Yeah, we do need to be sprinting, and what the president's plan has put on the table is a big sprint. In fact, we can't be exhorting other nations when we're not doing — you know, we're not taking care of our own business at home.

    So it's really important that we get — that we make as a nation a commitment to 100 percent clean and renewable energy because we're going to be exhorting other countries to be doing the same thing. So, when we go to the next version of Paris, in Glasgow in November, we want to make sure that we can lead with authority as a nation and that we can exhort others.

    And, by the way, we've got all sorts of solutions, technologies, et cetera, we can be partners with other countries on. So, yeah, it is a hair-on-fire moment, we should be acting with urgency, but the Biden administration, that's exactly why they are putting forth historic investments in clean energy so that we can do what we need to do at home and exhort the rest of the world to do it as well.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to ask you about an argument that the Republicans and some Democrats in Congress and Senate make, which is that the proposals that are being put forth by the administration in the billions, tens and hundreds of billions of dollars are too expensive and that we will, if we don't get China and India to sign on, we're going to be bankrupting ourselves and putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    I think they are completely misreading this moment. Number one, all of the countries of the world have signed on to reduce CO2 emissions. All of the countries of the world are going to need the products that are going to get them there.

    So, who — are we going to allow other countries to take advantage of this, what will be a $23 trillion global market for the technologies and products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions? We could stand by the side of the road and allow China to able to do it or we can get in the game. And that's what this president is doing. That's number one.

    Number two, if we don't do it, then what? I mean, we are spending $190 billion a year addressing these extreme weather events. So, we can — and it's only escalating. In the '90s, in the '80s, we spent about $17 billion a year. Every year, it's gotten more and more expensive in responding as the climate has continued to grow, has continued to increase.

    So we need to address this with the urgency that it requires, and that's why doing nothing is not an option. Doing nothing is missing an opportunity in addition to saving the planet.

  • William Brangham:

    U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, thank you very much for being here.

  • Jennifer Granholm:

    You bet. Thanks for having me on.

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