Late last Thursday night in Washington DC, news broke that after 18 months of negotiations, Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator for West Virginia and the upper house’s vital swing vote, had finally killed off President Biden’s infrastructure spending bill. Formerly known as Build Back Better, Biden’s initial US$2 trillion plan, which he called “a once in a generation investment in America”, included unprecedented spending to combat climate change. The bill had died, only to be reborn many times, with the initially impressive spending whittled away. This death, however, felt decisive.
For many, the pandemic, rolling economic shocks and war are a reason to spend big on climate measures that could decrease reliance on Russian gas, stabilise energy prices, and ultimately slow climate change. This did not convince Manchin, who cited rising inflation as his primary reason for killing the bill.
Stung by Manchin’s action, Biden asserted: “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.”
But on a subsequent visit to a former coal plant in Massachusetts, which now manufactures underwater cables for offshore wind farms, he announced relatively meagre measures boosting offshore wind and providing $2.3 billion for communities facing extreme heat. Climate advocates have urged Biden to go further and declare a climate emergency, using his power to phase out the leasing of public lands for oil and gas drilling, limit offshore drilling and expand clean energy production.
The US has missed a historic opportunity to lead an energy transition, one that will occur with or without it
The Supreme Court has limited his room to manoeuvre. Dominated by Republicans, the court has made a series of radical decisions on abortion and the role of government, ruling that there were significant limits on what the Environmental Protection Agency, and therefore the president, could do to address climate change and clean air through executive powers. The ruling allows for some regulations on controlling pollution from power plants but blocks the agency from setting state-by-state targets for pollution.
The court’s decision is a blow to Biden’s “whole of government” approach to climate change. And should the Democrats lose in November’s midterm elections, their ability to pursue even this may be limited by Republican funding cuts to key agencies that implement climate policies.
Political system a barrier to action
Biden himself is not blameless. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising energy costs, his administration has supported some new fossil fuel infrastructure, including giving the green light to new gas export terminals and potentially new drilling in the Arctic.
The infrastructure spending bill was arguably the most serious attempt to take climate action through Congress since President Obama failed to pass a “cap and trade” system in 2009. So why have Democrats failed again?
For starters, the Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority meant every senator had to be on board. The Senate’s seniority system also meant that Manchin had undue influence over the process because he chaired the influential Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Money talks in the US political system. As the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil, fossil fuels still dwarf the clean energy sector in size and political influence. Senator Bernie Sanders explained Manchin’s motives: “This is a guy who is [a] major recipient of fossil fuel money.” During the current electoral cycle, the West Virginia member has received more money in political donations from the coal, oil and gas industries than any other senator. Manchin’s family also has coal investments.
The industry support for Manchin extends more broadly to the Republican Party. No Republican supported Build Back Better or its successor in the Senate or the House of Representatives. Last year a small number of Republicans did, however, vote for a smaller infrastructure spending bill, which included some support for electric vehicles, rail and climate resilience measures.
While the vast majority of the American public support climate action, it is not currently seen as a political priority: a mere 1% of voters named it the most important issue facing the country – even if climate change is embedded in every other issue they cite. That said, Biden has also failed to pass a range of other measures to increase social welfare in the wake of the pandemic. The sclerotic US political system, where the majority’s will can be frustrated by representatives of thinly populated states in the Senate, or unelected judges in the courts, is a barrier to action on most issues.
Biden remains rhetorically supportive of the Paris Agreement and global climate policy. But the US is increasingly off course to achieve the climate targets it set only last year. An analysis from the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, found that the US is on track to reduce emissions between 24% and 35% below 2005 levels by 2030, absent any new policy action. However, its Paris Agreement target is 50–52% below these levels. Relative to its historical contribution to climate change and the Paris goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5C, these targets were already insufficient.
Other countries, including China, will be asked to fill the gap created by US inaction. It looks like the US has missed a historic opportunity to lead an energy transition, one that will occur with or without it. Fossils like Joe Manchin may yet bury us all.