intelligencer chats

Just How Disastrous Is Manchin’s Climate Obstruction?

Coal is sticking around for a while. Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

With precisely zero votes to spare in the Senate, Democrats’ multitrillion-dollar plan was always going to be a tight squeeze. Now, the bill’s key climate provision is in mortal danger, thanks to the preferences of a certain senator from West Virginia. I spoke with New York deputy editor David Wallace-Wells about the long-term ramifications of Joe Manchin’s monumental decision.

Ben: News broke on Friday that West Virginia senator/shadow president Joe Manchin strongly opposes the Democrats’ $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, which is the central climate component of their massive reconciliation bill — and was supposed to be President Biden’s proof to the world that he’s taking a big swing on green energy ahead of the upcoming Glasgow Climate Change Conference. Liberal reaction to Manchin’s stance was mostly shock and dismay; climate writer and activist Bill McKibben declared, “This is high on the list of most consequential actions ever taken by an individual senator; you’ll be able to see the impact of this vain man in the geologic record.” Things are of course still in flux with this bill, but let’s say this part of it really does get cut out completely? Do the doom-and-gloom assessments of its absence strike you as basically correct, or perhaps a bit overblown?

David: It depends a bit on your perspective going into the negotiations. The planet is on a relatively catastrophic course — heading for about three degrees Celsius of warming this century, on present trend lines. To get anywhere near the targets outlined by the world’s scientists and effectively ratified in the Paris Agreement — that we limit warming to two degrees and aim to get as close to 1.5 degrees as possible — requires decarbonization of breathtaking scale and rapidity. The Clean Electricity Performance Program wasn’t going to allow the U.S. to do that, but it was the biggest tool in the current set of proposals, and given the political landscape it seems unlikely, if not impossible, we’ll get the opportunity to push something bigger over the next five years. Which means that, in killing the program, Manchin is effectively and single-handedly sabotaging the American government’s ability to address the crisis anytime soon. And soon very much matters — the next time a Democratic trifecta may be in place to consider climate action, the world may well have already breached the 1.5-degree threshold, if only temporarily.

We’re not walking away from the solution to climate change — the problem is much, much bigger than that. But we are walking away from the biggest thing we are considering doing right now, which is dispiriting on both a climate level and a faith-in-American-government level. We know what we need to do here. We can’t do anything close. And the biggest thing we could manage is being torpedoed by a single senator representing just 1.7 million Americans. According to Evergeen Action, the CEPP would create 8 million American jobs. There’s just something profoundly broken about that.

Ben: Does Manchin’s position even make sense from a purely parochial perspective? He wants to prop up the coal and natural-gas industry in West Virginia (with which he has extensive financial ties, it should be said), but given that sector’s rapid decline even during the Trump presidency, will his intervention here actually do much? Maybe buy a couple to a few more years before obsolescence?

David: It’s hard for me to see the logic. And the coal industry as a whole only employs about 15,000 people in West Virginia.

Ben: So, just to be clear, there is simply no viable alternative to this measure that could pass the Senate or be implemented through executive action? What about the possibility of that old chestnut the carbon tax, which may be revived partly in response to Manchin’s position?

David: The effectiveness of a carbon tax depends totally on what level you set it at, and personally I don’t see any reason to expect that; should Democrats “fall back” to that approach, the result will be a price that really drives decarbonization of the power sector. In general, with representatives and with voters, subsidies are much more popular than penalties and taxes, and while the CEPP does both, at least it also subsidizes.

Now, these dynamics can surprise us — the U.S. as a whole has cut its emissions more than Obama’s failed cap-and-trade program said it would achieve, even without any real large-scale federal emissions policy in place. But we’re at a point in the climate timeline where being moderately surprised by small and unexpected progress delivered by markets rather than legislation isn’t really all that helpful. Every bit matters, of course, but if you’re really hoping to get the whole power sector to 80 percent clean energy by 2030, or the country as a whole to cut its emissions in half by then, you need something much more aggressive — if probably something more aggressive than CEPP, too.

For all this to happen in the immediate run-up to the COP26 climate conference is especially distressing, even for someone like me who hasn’t had an enormous amount of faith that much progress would be made there. For the U.S. to get past the Trump bottleneck, find itself with full Democratic control of the federal government, at a time of rising global and American alarm about the state of global warming and the urgent need to do something about it, and head into a landmark conference designed to cement and extend the ambitions of the Paris accords right after dropping the biggest tool in its domestic decarbonization arsenal …

It just makes all the talk of needing to hold China’s feet to the fire look foolish, if not outrageous.

Ben: Right. I mean, given the U.S. history of being the odd man out in climate treaties, plus the seesaw nature of Congress and the presidency, with allies worrying that any progress made will promptly be wiped out in four years, our credibility was already iffy. But now …

And even if this plan did get through, I suppose it could be struck down by a Supreme Court that is unlikely to look kindly on large-scale environmental regulation.

David: Well, yes, that would be an enormous additional hurdle, or could be, though those who’ve designed this policy feel pretty confident in its procedural and legal durability.

But it is another sign of just how many veto points stand between this country and real progress on climate, and how maddeningly difficult it is to engineer even bare-minimum policy.

Just How Disastrous Is Manchin’s Climate Obstruction?