Clean Energy Insights

Joe Manchin, the climate Grinch

7 minute read

As featured in the Hill

‘Tis the season to be jolly, they say. That is unless the climate Grinch Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) steals all hope of solving the climate crisis away when you least expect it, cashing in on corporate donations in the process.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose jolliness fled pretty quickly on Sunday after hearing Manchin had told Fox News he would vote no on the Build Back Better (BBB) Act. Not only does the BBB deliver on the key promises Biden ran for president on, the backbone of the Democratic Party platform — but more importantly, it would be the most comprehensive climate change legislation we’ve ever seen — even after Manchin whittled it down over many months of negotiation. When the vast majority of Americans voted to put Congress and the White House in the hands of democrats, it was to accomplish this agenda put forth in the BBB — to tackle the climate crisis and rebuild our economy through clean energy investments that will put people back to work. For the Maserati driving senator who lives on a yacht and receives the most fossil fuel money in the Senate, to thwart the goals of the majority of Americans is reprehensible — not to mention for his state of West Virginia that ranks near the bottom in public health, education and infrastructure.

To justify this Grinch-like behavior, Manchin is doubling down on the boogie man of inflation and claiming that parents who receive the child tax credit will use it to buy drugs.

He also claims that if he can’t go home to West Virginia and explain it, he can’t vote for it. Perhaps he hasn’t checked in with them a while from his yacht in D.C. A coal miner’s union in West Virginia has asked him to change his mind and vote yes on BBB.

As frustrating as this development is, all is not lost. Many on Capitol Hill believe that there is a path forward that can salvage the legislation.

But if not, or if not soon, it’s also an important time to remember that Congress is not the only climate show in town. Venture capitalists invested $40 billion in clean tech start-ups in 2021. In the first half of this year, 92 percent of new energy capacity built in the U.S. was renewable. Clean energy jobs remain one of the fastest-growing job sectors, despite the rest of the economy slowing down. The two highest-valued U.S. automakers are Tesla and Rivian, electric car manufacturers. And so many cities and states have committed to 100 percent clean energy that one out of every three Americans now lives in a place committed to being 100 percent renewable energy powered.

Even the Biden administration is starting to remember that as the executive branch it can do a little executing itself. Two weeks ago, they announced a commitment to have the federal government be completely decarbonized by 2050. Which is amazing. (Although, let us not forget, this was only weeks after they allowed the largest oil and gas drilling lease sale to go through, opening up 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. It was days after Biden returned from the UN climate summit COP26 and less than a year after he promised on the campaign trail to ban any new drilling as president.)

The point is, don’t let Manchin suck all the air out of the room. We’re making progress on climate, despite Washington’s antics, and it’s important to remind ourselves of what’s working at times like this.

The problem is bigger than Manchin

But something struck me about this latest round of political sparring over climate. I’m not much of a pro-wrestling fan, but there’s an interesting parallel here. In wrestling, which is scripted and operates more like a soap opera than actual sport, there are good guys and bad guys. The bad guys, play up their nefariousness, inciting boos from the crowd. The good guys are portrayed as sweet, endearing, likeable, albeit sometimes oblivious to the bad guy behind them about to hit them with a chair. 

With this in mind, it’s pretty clear who is who in the political arena — at least when it comes to climate. The Democrats appear to mean well, claiming the moral high road. But somehow there’s always a rotating villain thwarting their best of intentions — whether it’s Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), former President Trump, or now Manchin (the list goes on) who are somehow able to single-handedly stop the Democrats from delivering on their promises, even when they’re in control of the Executive and Legislative branches of the government. In the crowd, we sigh with frustration. We shake our heads in annoyance. We even foster a bit of sympathy for the poor Democrats who were so close to getting it done this time, but just couldn’t seem to catch a break.

What a tired narrative.

Manchin is not the problem. He’s just the latest character to play the Grinch. The problem is a system designed to allow the Manchins of the world to exist and wield so much power.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director of the NAACP legal defense fund recently tweeted, “Manchin is Manchin. But what kind of healthy democracy is structured in a way that can allow one man elected by 290,000 voters in one of the least populous states to thwart the agenda of his party and the President who was elected with 81 million votes. We need structural change.”

It’s not like this is some sort of mystery as to what’s behind all this. As I mentioned, he’s the highest recipient of oil and gas money in the Senate. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling made corporate money in politics fair game allowing its tentacles to influence our laws in countless ways — from killing the BBB to subsidizing more fossil fuels, from increasing the already bloated military budget to reducing corporate taxes.

Winning federal climate legislation is going to take more than electing Democrats. It’s going to take changing the rules so that the guy who Exxon Mobil brags about meeting with every week can’t singlehandedly block the last best chance we have to keep a livable planet. And in the meantime, we need to keep doing all that we can to support the efforts of communities, civil society, entrepreneurs, investors, businesses and local governments to advance the just transition to clean energy as fast as possible. This is a group to which we owe tremendous thanks for keeping us in this fight these last few decades, while our democracy shakily tries to awaken from its slumber.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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