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After the news broke last Thursday night that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., refused to vote for any measures to mitigate climate change in a budget reconciliation bill this month, environmentalists and progressive Democrats erupted in frustration.
“There truly aren’t words for how appalled, outraged and disappointed we are,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, the legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “Senator Manchin had every opportunity to stand up for climate, jobs and justice and save families money when they need it most, but instead he is choosing to stand with polluters. We urge him to reconsider — our children’s future depends on it.”
“Once again, Joe Manchin is putting polluter profits ahead of the health and well-being of the American people, especially for communities that have long been hit hardest by the devastation of pollution, climate change, and lack of investments in our future,” said Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce. “We are horrified by his choice to walk away from any meaningful action on climate and to favor his coal profits over our struggling families and communities.”
For environmental lobbyists such as Pierce and Sittenfeld, the condemnation represents a shift. Until now, they and others in the climate movement have stayed hopeful and complimentary towards Manchin, saying they think he can be cajoled into supporting climate action.
Just last month, Pierce described herself to Yahoo News as “super optimistic, believe it or not, that the bill formerly known as Build Back Better actually has a shot of moving in the near term,” referring to the budget reconciliation package’s former name. But, Pierce said at the time, if the Senate doesn’t pass a climate action bill this year before Republicans — who uniformly oppose the climate and energy components of Build Back Better — likely assume control of at least one chamber of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, it would be “a monster failure.”
That’s because a failure to pass the investments in hastening the transition to clean energy and electric vehicles that have passed the House of Representatives virtually guarantees that the U.S. will not achieve the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the nation pledged as part of the international climate agreement struck in Glasgow, Scotland, last year.
The U.S. is currently the world’s second-largest emitter of heat-trapping gasses, after China, and it is the largest historically. So not only does its failure to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s call for halving emissions in this decade mean the world won’t reach that target, it also threatens to undermine the whole global climate negotiation process.
“One thing I have never understood about Mr. Manchin is how he looks his grandchildren in the eye,” Leah Stokes, an environmental politics expert who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend. “While he may leave his descendants plenty of money, they will also inherit a broken planet. Like other young people, Mr. Manchin’s grandchildren will grow up knowing that his legacy is climate destruction.”
Manchin — who has made millions of dollars in the coal industry and has received the most campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies of anyone in Congress — said in a local West Virginia radio interview Friday morning that he would be open to voting for the clean energy and electric vehicle incentives in September if economic data released next month shows inflation easing.
“I’m not stopping [negotiating],” he said. “This is rhetoric. I’ve been through this all my life, politically. I’ve never seen it at this level ... thinking they’re going to put all this pressure on me. I am where I have been. I would not put my staff through this, I would not put myself through this if I wasn’t sincere.”
“We could come back the first of September and pass this legislation,” he said. “If it’s a good piece of legislation. ... I thought we were moving truly in the right direction.”
But climate activists who feel they’ve been strung along by Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, are not getting their hopes up.
“If Senator Joe Manchin doesn’t think passing energy legislation is an immediate top priority of the U.S. Senate, he should hand back his Energy and Natural Resources gavel today,” Evergreen Action executive director Jamal Raad said in a statement emailed to reporters on Friday. “There is no reason to wait until September to act on energy legislation that would lower energy price inflation, create clean energy jobs, and stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”
Mainstream Democratic figures are also slamming Manchin. John Podesta, who was a high-ranking official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told MSNBC, “It seems odd that Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.”
This is not the first time the coal-state centrist has withdrawn his support for climate action. Manchin previously announced that he wouldn’t vote for Biden’s agenda, then called Build Back Better, in December, even though he already had forced major concessions from his party in the previous months. (These concessions include the removal of a program to incentivize utilities to switch to cleaner sources of energy.) Since then, Manchin has gone back and forth with the White House and his own party’s congressional leadership over the details of the legislation.
Now leading progressives in Congress are saying I told you so to the Democratic leadership.
“It’s what, unfortunately, I saw back in December,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told the Washington Post. She is referring to the fact that her wing of the party grudgingly agreed to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — considered a priority for Manchin but a mixed bag on climate change — at that time. Progressives had wanted to hold out for the infrastructure bill to pass in concert with the reconciliation bill and they rightly feared that passing infrastructure alone would undercut their leverage over Manchin.
Manchin, Jayapal concluded, “is not an honest negotiator ... somebody who lies to his own president about being willing to get something done and then consistently shows over and over again that he’s not interested in carrying out the Democratic Party agenda.”
The Senate’s leading progressive had a similar take.
“[Manchin] has sabotaged the president's agenda,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday. “If you check the record, six months ago, I made it clear that you have people like Manchin, [Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema to a lesser degree, who are intentionally sabotaging the president's agenda, what the American people want, what a majority of us in the Democratic caucus want. Nothing new about this.”
In a reflection of the high stakes for the planet, Sanders used more forceful rhetoric than is typical for the famously collegial upper chamber of Congress. “That's not something that senators usually say about one another,” observed CNN’s Chris Cillizza. “And it's definitely not something a senator says about another senator ostensibly from his own party. (Sanders and Manchin are far away from one another on the ideological spectrum, but both caucus with Democrats in the Senate.)
Biden, after insisting for the last year that Congress will ultimately pass at least a scaled-down version of his climate and social spending bill, has finally implicitly conceded defeat. On Friday, he said that — after holding back on executive actions to combat climate change in order to avoid upsetting Manchin — he will finally put his administration’s full force into climate action.
The Department of Interior recently threatened to reverse Biden’s campaign pledge not to hold new lease sales for offshore oil and gas drilling. Manchin has criticized the Biden administration for limiting oil and gas development. (West Virginia has large deposits of gas as well as coal.) Now, some observers suggest, Biden may go full force in restricting fossil fuel extraction.
“If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” Biden said in a statement released Friday evening. “My actions will create jobs, improve our energy security, bolster domestic manufacturing and supply chains, protect us from oil and gas price hikes in the future, and address climate change. I will not back down: The opportunity to create jobs and build a clean energy future is too important to relent.”