Gutted

Thanks to Joe Manchin, we're on the edge of a devastating climate loss

Last night’s scoop from the New York Times was devastating: the paper reported that Joe Manchin had exercised a firm veto over the Clean Energy Performance Plan (CEPP) at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate efforts. “As a result,” the Times story said, “White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision, and are trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions.”

As Saturday dawned the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post appeared to support the reporting: indeed there had been intimations bad news was coming earlier in the week, when America’s chief climate negotiator started downplaying the chances for real success at next month’s Glasgow climate talks, by walking back expectations of American action. Congress, he said, would eventually “act responsibly,” but  “I don’t know what shape it’ll take ... or which piece of legislation, it’ll be in.”

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It increasingly looks like it won’t have the CEPP at its center. This proposal—worked out in painstaking detail over recent months—would “would reward utilities that increase their clean energy supply by 4 percent a year.” And it would penalize those that do not, which is why it’s so important: it’s really the only thing in the Biden plan with any teeth. The administration will doubtless try to insist that a cobbled-together “mix of other policies” will yield the same emissions reductions. In particular, they will point to massive tax credits for new renewable energy production. But that’s only half the battle. As veteran energy analyst David Victor said, “You need not just to deploy new stuff, but a way to retire old stuff. The combination of the two is key.” He added that the whole Biden program only works if there are sticks as well as carrots. “These tax incentives are carrots. But there’s no more stick.”

Some Democrats were making brave noises—”No climate, no deal,” Ed Markey, the Senate father of the Green New Deal has maintained. Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, who wrote much of the CEPP legislation, said “I will not support a budget deal that does not get us where we need to go on climate action. There are 50 Democratic senators and it’s going to take every one of our votes to get this budget passed.”

Perhaps it’s all just a trial balloon.

But I fear it’s the end of the line for the forseeable future for the federal legislation that would force a rapid shutdown of fossil fuel combustion. Emphasis on rapid, for its speed which science demands, and speed which Big Oil abhors. It knows its business model will eventually be overwhelmed by sun and wind, but it wants to delay that day as long as possible.

And since the climate crisis is a timed test, let’s be clear that a “cobbled together” package of incentives would be a…failure. Whatever emerges, the administration will certainly be able to claim that it’s the “largest climate legislation Congress has ever adopted.” But it will also be a…failure. Joe Biden’s claim was that he could persuade a Congress with even narrow Democratic majorities to do the right thing, and in many areas he has succeeded: the Build Back Better bill, even kneecapped by Manchin and Arizona’s enigmatic Senator Sinema, will provide important resources for building a better educated, fairer, and healthier America. But on climate it will fail the moment, and hence the future. He couldn’t pull off the LBJ or FDR thing—his majority was too slim, or his powers of persuasion ultimately not up to the task.

Here’s a few things that failure would not mean:

1) That Biden didn’t try—by all accounts his team has worked tirelessly to win Manchin’s support. Maybe there was yet more pork that could have been pushed on West Virginia, but every appearance is that Manchin (who takes more fossil fuel cash than anyone else) was working more for his donors than his constituents; as Exxon’s lobbyist pointed out in that sting video, they talk weekly. It’s absurd to bash the president and his team; one can only imagine their disappointment.

2) That the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans—in fact, 48 of the Senate’s 50 Democrats are on board with this powerfully progressive plan, which is quite remarkable. As opposed to none of the Senate’s 50 Republicans. And on other issues, including other parts of the Build Back Better plan, Manchin and Sinema are superior to the GOP alternatives, faint praise as that is. Had we two more Democratic Senators, we’d win this fight; there are of course elections ahead.

But let’s also be clear: failure here would do great damage to the idealism that propelled this effort, above all the remarkable work of the Sunrise Movement in building support for a Green New Deal and then shepherding key parts of it into this Build Back Better plan. Manchin is pointing to the past when we desperately need leaders who will point to the future.

And it would wreak havoc on international efforts to get other countries to increase their ambition and speed up their energy transitions. Everyone knows that more of the globe’s warming comes from U.S. carbon than any other source; everyone can see our dysfunction on display. “This will create a huge problem for the White House in Glasgow,” said Victor. “If you see the president coming in and saying all the right things with all the right aspirations, and then one of the earliest tests of whether he can deliver falls apart, it creates the question of whether you can believe him.”

And let’s be clear, too, that the failure would lie in part with the movements many of us have built over the last decade. We’ve gained more traction than anyone would have expected—we’re strong enough to call the question in Congress. But we’re not quite strong enough to carry the question. That’s a gutting recognition—yes, everything from the campaign finance laws to the Supreme Court to the archaic institutions of our government that leave a man like Manchin with an effective veto are stacked against us. But our job was to overcome them, and though we’ve come close it may not be close enough.

In which case, the search for effective sticks will, for a season, have to turn in other directions. There’s obviously great work underway at state and local levels, and that will help. But if the lever marked Politics can’t get the job done, the only other lever big enough is marked Money—if we can’t figure out how to keep Congress from propping up Big Oil, then we’ll have to figure out how to beat Chase and Citi.

But let’s use this weekend to build what pressure we still can in DC. I don’t know if calling your Senator is going to help at this point (unless your Senator is Senator Manchin). But when the stakes of the wager are this high, nudging the odds just a little is worth every effort.