Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Now our climate story of the week, which we're doing every Tuesday all this year on the show. Last week, both of the front-runners in the 2024 presidential race headed to Detroit to garner the support of striking United Auto Workers. The union has been striking as you know, against the big three automakers in the US for a 40% pay increase and a four-day work week and return to traditional pensions among other things. President Joe Biden joined the UAW picket line on Tuesday last week making him the first-ever sitting president to join a picket line. He backed their demands. Let's take a listen to a short excerpt.
President Biden: You guys of UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before, made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot and the companies were in trouble. Now they're doing incredibly well, and guess what, you should be doing incredibly well too.
Brian Lehrer: Now, the UAW was also asking for job security as the auto industry under President Biden moves toward electric vehicles. There are concerns that EVs may need fewer workers. Ford CEO estimated that it may be as much as 40% fewer workers. Republicans have picked up on that point as an attack line, and a line of attack on President Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, which has put billions into clean energy alternatives and provided incentives for EV production and purchase. The day after Biden's visit, so that's Wednesday last week, Trump held a rally in Detroit at a non-union manufacturing plant, and he went after EVs like a lot of the other Republicans hoping to be president did on the debate stage also last week. Take a listen to Trump.
Donald Trump: Every time Joe Biden and the UAW's political leadership talk about a fair transition to all-electric cars, American labor will be under siege. It's not going to work for you. It can't work.
Brian Lehrer: As the 2024 presidential race heats up, the UAW is the only union to not back Biden according to CNN, only major union. The fears over the rise in EVs aren't helping, but they certainly haven't endorsed Trump either. The head of the union, Shawn Fain, frequently says very negative things about Trump. Joining us now to break down what the rise of electric vehicles might mean for US auto workers and the UAW strike is Robinson Meyer, founding executive editor of Heatmap, a new climate-focused media company. Robinson, welcome back to WNYC. Thanks for coming on again.
Robinson Meyer: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Brian.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, do we have any auto industry workers listening in right now, car salespeople, mechanics, anyone else? What do you think about the transition to EVs in terms of its impact on jobs, as well as the climate? 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692, call or text. Let me start here, Robinson. The Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed provides up to a $7,500 subsidy for each electric vehicle sold according to the government website. Has the bill markedly accelerated the transition away from gas-powered vehicles so far at least in terms of new car purchases?
Robinson Meyer: It definitely has. I think we see that in two places. In terms of new car purchases, as you said, actually, this month or last month, we just hit the moment where one million new EVs have sold in the US in a year for the first time. It's about between 7% and 8%. We're going to see how many new cars sell overall. About, let's say, 14 million new cars sell in the US every year. Now more than a million of them are going to be EVs, so it's 7% to 8% of new cars are going to be EVs in the US.
This is the first place. That's an acceleration from last year. That's more than we saw last year. The US has passed this tipping point that we've observed in other countries, which is once more than 5% of new cars are EVs, then we see EVs rapidly make up penetration. The second place where I think we've seen the acceleration even more markedly than the new car market is in construction of new factories, construction of new EV production facilities.
There's been $60 billion of investment in EV manufacturing and battery manufacturing across the US since the Inflation Reduction Act was passed. That just stands out as I think where we're seeing the biggest acceleration because there was no guarantee that the US was going to be a manufacturing powerhouse in EVs. Now it seems like we will be making enough EVs to absolutely meet domestic demand, if not be exporting many EVs as well.
Brian Lehrer: Well, according to the America First Policy Institute, which is a think tank founded just two years ago to support Donald Trump's public policy agenda, according to that think tank, one proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency alone would eliminate 117,000 auto worker jobs by forcing Americans to buy electric vehicles. I know nobody's being forced, but there are all these incentives being provided. I guess that dovetails with Ford's CEO estimating that the rise of EVs might cut the auto workforce by 40%. Is there any reporting on your end to substantiate that?
Robinson Meyer: I think what folks have been saying for a long, long time is that EVs will require less labor than gas cars. The reason that they say that is because EVs just have many, many fewer moving parts. A gas or diesel car tends to have about 2,000 moving parts in its drive train and its engine and axles, an EV has about 18. It varies from car to car, but it's 15 to 20. So many fewer moving parts, that's a lot simpler, that would seem to have significantly reduced labor needs. I would still flag two things about that.
The first is that there have been some more recent studies that say, "Well, actually, if you include all the labor involved in making a battery, and not mining here, but assembling a battery, refining the metals for the battery, putting it together, moving it to a car, which absolutely we should include, and the Inflation Reduction Act does countenance as part of the EV supply chain, then there might not be the same reduction in labor needs. The second thing is that manufacturing across the board is getting less labor intensive. As we move to newer technology across the board, we would expect to see a reduction in just labor needs generally for whatever it is we're making.
That being said, I do think it is the case that for a long, long time, we've believed that EVs are going to be less labor-intensive to make. I think that that is an anxiety that is absolutely hanging over the UAW. Now, it would be very convenient if that anxiety didn't turn out to be true, but I think that is absolutely hanging over the UAW strike, and to some degree, it does make sense for the union to accumulate as much power and clout as it can now because if it's negotiating over workforce reductions or streamlining, it wants to be in a place where it can grab some of the winnings of that workforce reduction as well.
Brian Lehrer: Do you think climate advocates need to say, "Yes, there's going to be some workforce reduction as a result of a large-scale transition to EVs, but it's necessary and worth it in terms of the future of humanity on this planet?"
Robinson Meyer: I don't know. That's a political statement. I would say that I don't know whether that would be a very winning argument for climate advocates. What I would say is that the US and especially the UAW, the big three, because there's also all these other auto workers in the US who are not covered by the UAW, who are not in the upper Midwest, and there's a ton of investment, for instance, in auto working going into Georgia, right to work state, and there's going to be a lot of new jobs there, so it would be a tricky argument for climate activists to be speaking at a national level.
I would say that the big three does have an opportunity to reclaim some of its international prestige and reclaim some of its international markets, but that will only come through making EVs because regardless of what we do in the US with EV policy, Europe, China and the rest of the world are moving toward EVs. I think it's a delicate argument because on the one hand, yes, it is absolutely true that we need to move to EVs for climate-related reasons. On the other hand, there are wolves at the door of the big three here, and they are that the world is moving to EVs both for climate reasons and for economic reasons anyway, and so the big three needs to move as well.
Brian Lehrer: Ken in New Rochelle, an EV owner, you're on WNYC with Robinson Meyer from Heatmap, the climate-focused news organization. Hi, Ken.
Ken: Hi Brian. Mr. Meyer just stole my thunder, but I own two electric vehicles. I purchased them because of my interest in technology, not necessarily to save the world, but I ended up buying two vehicles that are so easy to drive. I can charge them at home. I rarely need to stop at charging stations unless I'm taking a long trip.
This is the wave of the future, and it's just been stated, if we don't take a leading role in this sector, China will just eat our lunch because they're already gearing up to produce electric vehicles far greater rate than we are. They'll take over the European market. As far as jobs go, I'm very sensitive to loss of jobs, but any technology advancement always causes a shift in jobs where jobs are created and jobs are lost. We have to be at the forefront of reeducating and retooling our workforce if we're going to take a lead in the world.
Brian Lehrer: Ken, thank you very much. I want you to follow up, Robinson, based on whatever reporting you have on one thing that he said there, which is that if we don't take the lead in producing EVs, we're going to lose out to China. That's exactly the opposite of what all the Republican presidential hopefuls are saying, which is if we do transition to EVs, we're going to lose out to China because that's where many more of the batteries at very least, are being made. What are the real economics of that, if you know?
Robinson Meyer: Absolutely. I think America is in a very interesting position with regard to the EV transition and our competition with China. I first want to say I think the caller is broadly exactly right, that basically, the US automakers writ large are in a position where, as I was just saying before he called, it's very good timing, the wolf at the door for them is China.
China is getting very, very close. Some of the Chinese EV automakers are getting very, very close to making a vehicle that will be cheaper both to purchase and to run and will be electric than a gas car. Once that happens, then it's just, well, EVs are the best deal overall. Why wouldn't you buy an EV? They're cheaper and better. [laughs]
Brian Lehrer: Eventually.
Robinson Meyer: That is the threat that EV makers are-- No, it would be both cheaper to buy and then to run. That's the threat that the big three are dealing with. I think America writ large is in this very interesting position because on the one hand, and we often don't talk about this, and we don't talk about it in the context of the UAW because it's not a union company, but America does have what was up until at least last quarter, the world's largest EV maker.
Tesla, an American company where a ton of production happens in America was selling more EVs than any other company, at least up until last quarter. BYD, the biggest Chinese EV maker may have now supplanted them, but America is actually leading in many aspects of EV production. Where we're not leading and where we are going to need to develop our own technology, figure out what we can by working with the Chinese is in some aspects of battery production.
That's because China over the past 20 years has developed an absolute dominance in aspects of battery production. That's not only battery production and EVs, that's also battery production in your iPhone. All consumer electronic batteries, that mineral supply chain and that production supply chain now runs through China.
There are fine-tuned aspects of that process, particularly in the midstream, what we would call the midstream of making a battery where the anodes and cathodes, all the hard chemical work happens, that right now is dominated by China. I think it's a twofold thing here. On the one hand, there's a ton of money in the Inflation Reduction Act, and there's a ton of money and interest from the government in the Department of Energy and it's in-house bank and in lots of places to getting the US to be competitive and to import some of that technology, learn what we can and try to leapfrog it as well.
There's a lot of interest in having the US try to catch up to China there. On the other hand, that does mean that we're going to have to work with China to some degree for the next decade or so or do the most work with them that we can in order to learn what we can because they are the leader. I think it's a very unusual position for the US to be in where we are both in some parts of auto making, in some parts of the EV supply chain, an absolute world leader.
We are the world leader in pickup truck manufacturing, for instance. There's tons of aspects of the auto supply chain where the US is globally dominant. There's a lot of other parts where we are very much in a catch-up role. That mix of catching up but also being ahead is actually quite unusual for economic or industrial policy.
That's the line we're going to have to walk over the next few years. I think that's why you both see on the one hand, Democrats talking about all the potential growth and economic transformation and jobs that could come from this, and on the other hand, Republicans saying, but you're going to have to work with China. Now, I will say writ large is where Republicans I think are wrong, is that this is not a choice that companies can make. They are going to have to make EVs eventually. That does mean for the next five years that we are going to have to work with China in many places.
Brian Lehrer: Our guest is Robinson Meyer, founding executive editor of Heatmap, a relatively new climate-focused media company. We're talking about the economics, the politics, and the climate impact of electric vehicles, all of this in the context of the UAW strike, the two parties taking different positions on the UAW strike with respect to the implications of electric vehicles and now the climate concern.
There's a persistent concern, Robinson, I'm sure you're familiar with it, based on some top news media headlines about EVs even being as green as they're cracked up to be. On the one hand, electricity used to power them isn't necessarily clean. A lot still comes from coal and gas-powered plants just to make the electricity, and then there's mining in addition that goes into getting the materials for the batteries. How do you score electric vehicles on a climate scorecard anyway?
Robinson Meyer: I think what the most important thing to understand here about all of this and the reason we care about internal combustion or gas cars versus electric cars in the first place is that at the end of the day, the more you drive a gas car, the more carbon will go in the atmosphere.
That is because of the simple technical, physical fact that the way you are propelling the car is by splitting apart fossil fuel molecules and releasing carbon dioxide out the back and making global warming worse. That is not the case for EVs. The more you drive an EV you are not necessarily making climate change worse and the cleaner the grid that you plug that EV into, the less and less damage you're doing to the climate.
There is going to be no way to get to a zero-carbon energy system or a decarbonized energy system without having a much, much, much larger role for EVs. It doesn't mean EVs are the answer to the whole transportation sector, but especially in the US where so much of our geography is stretched out over the land and we have such a car-dependent system, they're going to be really, really, really important.
You mentioned the power grid and the role that the-- If you plug your car, your EV into a dirty grid, what will that mean? I think it's really important to distinguish between a coal grid and a gas grid or a gas-coal or the mixed grid, let's say the mid-transition grid that you have in New York or that we have, I'm speaking to you from DC, that we have in DC. EVs have two benefits in addition to just the fact that they run electricity so they don't necessarily make carbon dioxide.
The first benefit of EVs is they're much more efficient than gas cars. Gas car, it loses waste heat, it loses energy when you break. EVs obviously don't generate the same amount of waste heat and they recapture energy when you break. What that means is that even a EV, if you were to somehow run an EV on electricity generated from oil which is a little silly, but let's just do an apples-to-apples comparison would actually be much more efficient and release much less carbon dioxide than a gas car with a gas engine.
Once we talk about having a natural gas grid, then an EV, even if you had a 100% natural gas grid, which we need to get rid of anyway, and which utilities are trying to get rid of, and which we're trying to make utilities get rid of to fight climate change, even if you had a 100% natural gas grid and you plugged your car into that, your EV into that, it would be way more efficient, way less carbon intensive than a gas car. Where it starts to get interesting is on coal. If you look at Pittsburgh or Missouri, these are the two states at this point with some of the most coal-intensive power grid in the country. If you had a Bolt there, a small GM-made EV, and you plugged it in to that very coal-intensive grid, you would emit more carbon than a Prius, but you would not emit more carbon than a Camry. I think very few people who own EVs are comparing against a Prius. I think they're comparing against all other cars.
Everywhere in the country, they will be more efficient. If they're comparing it to Prius, they better look to see if they have a very cool efficient heavy grid. That's not a problem in New York, it's not a problem in the listening area. That's really a problem just in these last few places, mostly in the middle of the country, that have a very, very coal-dependent grid. This is a long answer, but hopefully, that got some of the questions.
Brian Lehrer: Yes. Very clearly put. I think a lot of our listeners probably understood all those pieces of relativity that you have to take into account when you're doing math and trying to make these calculations. Of course, the next level would be if so many more people use mass transit to get around so much more and no kinds of individual vehicle, but comparing vehicle to vehicle that's all very clear, and I think busts some myths. Lawrence in Anchorage, you're on WNYC. Hi Lawrence.
Lawrence: Oh, hi, Brian. Thank you. I honestly love your show. I'm here up early here in Anchorage. I'm not against batteries, but I just wanted to maybe give the audience some information, which is that here in the Nome area of Alaska, there's a huge deposit of graphite, which could be used as a component of battery production. It's probably one of the largest in the world. A local native corporation has invested a couple of million dollars with this Canadian-based company to mine that graphite for the production so we can become more autonomous from say, Chinese graphite.
A lot of the indigenous people also are afraid because it's going to be an open pit mine about the environmental consequences of that. Here in Alaska, we are pretty dependent on either tourism or extraction industries for our main mounts of sources of income. Whether it's oil or gas or minerals, there's some controversy about that. Personally, I am for battery EVs but I'm just saying that it's complex.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you for that complexity and bringing the cost to indigenous people in Alaska into it. In fact, I have a stat, Robinson, from Alaska Public Media, which says some forecasts say graphite demand driven by growth in EVs could rise 25-fold by the year 2040.
Robinson Meyer: That's right. Graphite is one of these minerals that we're going to need, not only for EVs but for anything that uses batteries or anything that is electronics. It's something where right now we are heavily reliant on China. I think I really, really enjoyed the caller's remarks. I think one reason is that it gets the attention that exists not only in Alaska, but I think, across the world, which is on the one hand, as he said, a local indigenous company, which is--
I'm rapidly getting out of my depth here, but tribes and tribal interests are organized differently in Alaska. They have companies that have some governmental authority, is interested in exploiting that mine, but then there's also local indigenous folks who are worried about exploiting it. I think often in discussions around mining or around oil extraction, for that matter, there can be a very hard line with it. Where, oh, well, environmentalists don't want this and the local indigenous people don't want it but it's often more complicated than that. It's neither here nor there. That's just the reality of the world.
Brian Lehrer: Last question, a political question. I mentioned earlier that the UAW, obviously currently on strike is the only union among a certain group of major unions that hasn't endorsed either Trump or Biden. The fears real or perceived as I understand them over the rise of EVs are reportedly keeping the union away from an early Biden endorsement. What do you think Biden's messaging to the UAW and other auto workers could be that's consistent with pro-climate messaging? You have Trump over there and other Republicans saying climate policy is bad for you because it's going to cause all these complexities we've been talking about all segment.
Robinson Meyer: Since this is the last question I'll say that this is exactly the kind of question and an issue that we're very interested in covering at Heatmap, as he said, is a new climate-focused outlet. We're at heatmap.news for readers. We're a subscriber-supported outlet, so please come check us out.
To your question, the UAW was really annoyed at Biden because of this large loan that the Department of Energy made to Ford to help them open a new battery plant. I think the UAW felt like there weren't enough labor protections for UAW workers in that loan. The loan is basically going to help Ford scale up what will be one of the country's largest battery plants in Kentucky very quickly.
Scale is really important in all this stuff because that's the only way that US companies are actually going to be able to compete with China. I think Biden's message is, the best message he has is the one that he's making, which is on the one hand, to support the UAW more than any previous president. To show up at their strikes, to back their demands, to try to give them as much clout as possible as we head into this period, and to convey how important they are to his administration and its broader economic goals.
I think, on the other hand, he can help them by trying to unveil some policy that's going to put them in a better bargaining position. We've already seen that a little bit. The DOE also now rolled out a new grant program to help support a $10 billion loan program to help support high-quality auto-working jobs. I think the other thing that Biden frankly may not be in a great position to message but that he's going to need other people to message, is that this is not a choice for the big three, especially if they want to compete beyond this decade and in markets outside the United States that this transition is happening.
It is being driven by forces outside of the US and by forces that have as much to do with environmental policy as they don't. It's just also market economics and energy security reasons support for EVs as well. That transition is going to be coming for the auto industry as it exists today. The companies and the unions have to deal with it constructively or be in a position again, where they're going to need more help from the government in the future as they did in 2007.
Brian Lehrer: That's our climate story of the week. We thank Robinson Meyer, founding executive editor of Heatmap, the new climate-focused media company. Robinson, thank you so much.
Robinson Meyer: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
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