West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin just cooked the planet. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. I mean that literally. Unless Manchin changes his negotiating position dramatically in the near future, he will be remembered as the man who, when the moment of decision came, chose to condemn virtually every living creature on Earth to a hellish future of suffering, hardship, and death.
Quite a legacy. But he has earned it.
Last night, during the insane and at times comical negotiations over President Biden’s infrastructure bill and his $3.5 trillion Build Back Better agenda (aka the reconciliation bill), Manchin let it be known that he was not going to vote for any measure above $1.5 trillion. And because Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote in the Senate, if Manchin won’t vote for it, the reconciliation bill won’t pass.
The $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill includes a long list of programs and tax reforms that will help reduce poverty and improve the social safety net, such as universal child tax credit, universal pre-K, free community college, and an expansion of Medicare. But it is also the primary vehicle for President Biden’s ambitious climate action agenda, including cuts in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and, most importantly, the Clean Energy Performance Package (CEPP), which is a clean energy standard that incentivizes power companies to shift away from fossil fuels.
From a climate point of view, the importance of these climate policy measures is impossible to overstate. In order to have a decent chance at maintaining a habitable planet, scientists agree that the world needs to zero out carbon pollution by 2050. And to have any shot at that, we have to start moving now. Every year, every month, every hour of delay makes that goal more difficult to achieve, and increases the risks of accelerated climate chaos that will make this past summer of hellish wildfires, storms, and droughts look like the good old days.
The zero carbon by 2050 goal is not a political slogan or environmentalist’s dream. It is what the best scientists in the world are telling us we need to do to avert climate catastrophe. It is also the basis for Biden’s goal of a 100 percent clean energy grid by 2035, and a 50 percent reduction in CO2 pollution by 2030. For Biden, taking strong action on climate is not just important in itself. It is also key to giving the U.S. climate negotiators something to bring to the table at the upcoming Glasgow climate talks, which begin on October 31st. After President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate deal, the rest of the world has looked at the U.S. with distrust. Passage of strong climate measures in Congress before the Glasgow meeting would not only rehabilitate America’s standing as a nation that takes its contribution to solving the climate crisis seriously, but give U.S. negotiators leverage to push other nations to take action.
For Biden, and for the world, it all rests on the ability to get the reconciliation bill through Congress. With Republicans not willing to do anything, this was the only chance they had to get climate policy through. It was a gamble, but it was a gamble they had to take.
But Manchin is fucking it all up. To him, climate is a tomorrow problem. As he said recently on CNN’s State of the Union: “What’s the urgency?”
Manchin is one of a small group of centrist Democrats who pretend to be motivated by fiscal restraint. They have pitched themselves as the sober adults in the room full of crazy Socialist progressives who are spending like drunken sailors on government programs. Manchin says he can only support $1.5 trillion, that is the number that he believes is responsible, and he won’t go beyond that. “I’m at $1.5 trillion — I think $1.5 trillion does exactly the necessary things we need to do,” he said.
Yes, $1.5 trillion is a big number. And yeah, this is politics, you take the best deal you can get and move on. Half a loaf is better than no loaf.
But the problem is, it’s not close to what we need on climate. The policy specifics of the reconciliation bill are not yet clear, but what is clear is that Manchin won’t go along with anything that hurts the coal industry, including a reduction of the massive fossil fuel subsidies lavished on Big Oil and Big Coal. And if the clean energy standard is included (which is not at all clear at this point), Manchin will be sure it is weakened to the point of being ineffectual.
All in all, at a time when the world is looking to the U.S. to take bold action on climate and show some leadership, Manchin will be sure that what emerged from all this is, at best, some weak tea of climate policy that might not look like outright denial or dismissal but will do little to solve the problem. And, more importantly, that will do nothing to hasten the end of fossil fuels. As he put it in this memo outlining his negotiating position on the reconciliation bill, he made clear he wants assurances that nothing in the bill would get in the way of the production and burning of fossil fuels.
For anyone who cares about the future of life on this planet, Manchin’s moves are willfully destructive for a number of reasons.
First, his pretense toward fiscal sanity is absurd posturing. In a statement, he decried “the brutal fiscal reality” the nation faces as reason for his opposition. The $3.5 trillion, which is spread out over 10 years, is about 1.2 percent of GDP. How brutal is that? Especially when you consider that Manchin voted for every military budget in the last decade, which cost $9.1 trillion, without ever once whining about any brutal fiscal reality. As MSNBC’s Chis Hayes tweeted: “THERE IS NO BRUTAL FISCAL REALITY THE NATION FACES; IT IS ENTIRELY MADE UP.”
And the price of inaction on climate is a lot more than the price of action. It’s not just the tens of billions of dollars or so spent every year recovering from natural disasters. It’s also the price of the priceless: How do you put a dollar value on the extinction of monarch butterflies? How do you put a price tag on the 600 Americans who died during the heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest last summer? How do you run the numbers for a vanishing Arctic? As climate journalist Amy Westervelt put it with characteristic aplomb: “The change these motherfuckers are signing us up for is so many times more radical than any climate policy ever proposed.”
You can argue that the real action on climate happens at the local level. Or that the astounding decline in clean energy prices will drive the revolution. But without a big push from government, it won’t happen fast enough, nor will the deep injustices of climate chaos be addressed in any meaningful way.
Second, Manchin is obviously a tool of the fossil fuel industry, which has poured millions of dollars into lobbying and ads to kill the reconciliation bill. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s biggest trade group, is running ads that celebrate Manchin for his opposition to the plan. Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator. “Help us thank Senator Joe Manchin,” reads one recent ad, “for being a champion of American made energy.” In fact, Manchin is, as journalist Mark Hertsgaard points out, “a modern day coal baron” himself, earning roughly half a million dollars a year in dividends from millions of dollars of coal stock he owns.
Third, the coal industry that Manchin is working so hard to protect is already a dead man walking. Coal is in freefall. In 2020, 543 million tons of coal were mined in the U.S., about half as much as a decade earlier. In 2012, 90,000 people were employed in coal mines; today, it’s only 40,000. There are more florists in America than coal miners today.
Coal mining put food on the table for generations of workers. But it mostly funneled money to the coal barons who owned and controlled the mines. In the past 150 years or so, billions of tons of coal have been mined and blasted out of West Virginia. If fossil fuels brought wealth and justice and prosperity, West Virginia would have streets paved with gold. Instead, it is a landscape of heartbreak and toil. According to data from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, the state’s poverty rate of 16 percent is the sixth highest among the 50 states. It has the second lowest median household income in the nation. And nearly a third of all children in West Virginia live in a family that is either not getting enough to eat or is behind on housing payments. The state leads the nation in population decline, with young West Virginians fleeing to build lives elsewhere. You hear jokes about how people have overtaken coal as West Virginia’s top export.
The environmental legacy of Big Coal in West Virginia is equally toxic. Abandoned mines and thousands of uncapped oil and gas wells pollute local air and water. Mountaintop removal, a mining practice that involves deforesting mountain peaks and then blasting them apart to get at coal underneath, has turned large parts of the state into a moonscape.
Many West Virginians are done with coal and want a different future. A June poll by Data for Progress and the Chesapeake Climate Action Fund found that a clear majority of West Virginians, 56 percent, support a clean electricity transition by 2035, while only 36 percent oppose such a transition.
But Manchin himself is a man from the past. One of the tragedies here, not just for the people of West Virginia, but for the future of life on this planet, is that Manchin could have played this moment differently. With the leverage he has in the negotiations, he could have demanded massive investments in clean energy and social programs for West Virginia. He could have used it as a moment to ensure prosperity for his state and stability for our climate. He could have been a hero. Instead, he is a man out of time, selfish and sentimental and determined to take everyone down with him.