Joe Manchin as Alibi

Gadsen steam plant on the Coosa River, Alabama. The facility now burns natural gas, 2022. Photo: The Author

Devil Incarnate

Certain things we can stipulate: 1) That the senator from West Virginia is corrupt and a liar. He makes no bones about voting to support the industry that gave him his fortune; and he has broken multiple promises to his colleagues that he would, in the end, support Biden’s signature initiative, Build Back Better. 2) That Manchin’s refusal to support any climate change legislation in BBB is the height of irresponsibility.

But is he the devil incarnate? “It seems odd,” says Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff and Obama whisperer John Podesta, “that Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash writes: “This is nothing short of a death sentence.” Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action says: “He talked about his grandchildren. It turns out that’s all bullshit.” “Manchin is a modern-day villain,” says Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, “who…is willing to see the world burn as long as it benefits his near-term investment portfolio.” “Mr. Manchin’s grandchildren” writes U.C Santa Barbara Professor Leah Stoke in the NYTimes, “will grow up knowing that his legacy is climate destruction.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said: “This is our last chance to prevent the most catastrophic…effects of climate change.”

Manchin isn’t Satan – he’s an alibi. The Democrats, along with the big environmental NGOs and research universities have all done a terrible job of fighting climate change, raking in donations but failing to pass legislation or mobilize the public. In 1997, the Senate rejected the Kyoto Climate Accord by a vote of 95-0 because the deal wasn’t tough enough on China – an instance of cutting off your nose to spite your face. In 2010, Congressional Democrats, despite a supermajority, failed to pass a cap-and-trade program to curb the release of greenhouse gases. It was a weak bill, but it would at least have begun to put a price on CO2. And in 2021, they passed an infrastructure bill – big on bridges, highways, airports, and logging – that will arguably make global warming worse.

Environmental non-profits and university research centers have hardly performed better. The former’s embrace of carbon offsets is literally a scandal – The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, is a case in point. And the public messaging of the big non-profits and university research centers has been pathetic. I remember attending an American Geophysical Union annual conference in Washington D.C. a few years ago and hearing academic and NGO panelist after panelist saying how important it was not to frighten the public about climate change. In the meantime, Republicans and conservative Democrats used the politics of fear to prevent any meaningful action on the environment — and they still do.

Less bellyachin’ more regulatin’

The catastrophe Senator Wyden prophesies was in the works long before the current Congressional impasse and Sen. Manchin’s treachery. In 1960, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 320 ppm; it is now approaching 420 ppm and the rate of increase continues to accelerate. The last time the total, global concentration of CO2 was this high was 3 million years ago when the global temperature was 4 degrees Celsius warmer and ocean levels as much as 80 feet higher. The reason temperatures and sea level haven’t risen faster is that the oceans absorb a great deal of the added heat. But that’s only temporary. Our planet is now 1.2 degrees hotter than it was in pre-industrial times. Scientists from the IPCC predict that global temperatures will rise above the dangerous threshold of 1.5 degrees and possibly as high as 2.0 degrees within the next two decades “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” There are currently no prospects for changes of that magnitude. “Catastrophic” climate change is now baked into our future – the only question is how catastrophic.

The U.S., by far the leading emitter of CO2 per capita, continues to lead by bad example. Last year, its rate of carbon emissions was 6.2% higher than 2020. The trends for this year are no better and the future is an open question. Manchin’s rejection of Build Back Better clearly hurts, but it’s unclear how much. The bill’s $300 billion in price incentives and tax breaks — to boost sales of electric cars and subsidize solar power and other renewables — was to be spent over 10 years. Although that’s not a trivial amount of money, it isn’t nearly enough to launch even a modest Green New Deal. Bernie’s Sanders version cost $16 trillion over 15 years. With all that off the table, the question becomes: What can Biden, the EPA and the Congress do right now to begin to tackle the escalating catastrophe of global warming?

To help answer that question, I contacted Stan Meiburg, the former Acting Deputy Administrator of EPA (2014-17), currently Director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University, and an advisor to the Environmental Protection Network. We talked for about an hour last week, mostly about the Supreme Court’s recent decision limiting EPA’s discretion in regulating the emission of greenhouse gases from coal-burning power plants. Stan is a walking encyclopedia of EPA history and administrative procedure and no radical. You can take his advice to the bank. Here are my conclusions based upon our discussion: 1) Congress is pretty much a lost cause. No Republican will support rescinding the filibuster to pass any Democratic climate change legislation, and Manchin will always vote with the Republicans. 2) The ruling in W. VA v. EPA, as bad as it was, is moot. Total emissions from coal fired plants is already lower than the threshold set by Obama’s Clean Power Rule rejected (prospectively) by the court. 3) EPA and Biden still have considerable leeway to act.

That last is what caught my attention, and with thanks to Stan – but taking sole responsibility for errors of fact or interpretation – I offer the following five modest proposals:

1) The EPA should set ambitious greenhouse gas standards for new, natural-gas powered electricity generation. After that, it can establish equally stringent standards for existing gas-powered plants. The reason this is so important is that natural gas (methane) continues to replace coal. While it burns cleaner, a lot of it leaks into the atmosphere during extraction and transportation. And since methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, its impact on global temperature rise is just as bad as coal’s, maybe worse!

2) The EPA should also begin to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S. industrial sector. American industry is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as electricity generation. Some of President Biden’s recent executive actions call for increased rule-making in this domain, but few rules have actually been issued. The Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v EPA affirmed the right of the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a position affirmed in the recent W. VA v. EPA. The EPA should act on this now!

3) The U.S. agricultural sector is responsible for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. The number dipped below 10% in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic but increased again last year with the continued growth of animal agriculture. This pollution is regulated neither by the EPA nor the USDA. So-called “incentives” to reduce greenhouse gases are nothing more than giveaways and tax breaks for the largest agricultural corporations. It’s time to regulate them. Damn Cargill, ADM, and DuPont!

4) Biden’s EPA should strengthen rules for automotive tailpipe emissions beyond already announced standards. Car, truck, and bus fleets account for a greater share of greenhouse gas emissions than industry or electrical generation, and yet miles-per-gallon requirements are little changed from when Obama was president. The new standards should be at least as stringent as those announced by Gov. Gavin Newsome of California, which mandate 35% of new passenger vehicle to be powered by batteries or hydrogen by 2026, and 100% to be zero emission by 2035.

5) In the vain hope of getting Manchin’s vote on BBB, Biden granted multiple new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands and offshore, breaking a campaign promise. Earlier this month, he proposed additional offshore oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet. These plans should be immediately shelved. Biden should also deny approval of the Line 5 Tar-Sands Pipeline through the lands of the Anishinaabe people and their sacred Manoomin (wild rice) wetlands. The pipeline carries the same dirty oil as the Keystone XL pipeline blocked by Obama in 2015. Biden previously approved the Line 3 Pipeline despite massive indigenous protests and international condemnation.

Not Manchin, the other Joe

Paralysis in the face of the greatest calamity the world has ever known is a shocking indictment of U.S. capitalist democracy. The richest country in the world – one that spends about a trillion dollars on defense and security every year — is apparently incapable of adjusting its political and economic order sufficient to head off the end of human civilization. The answer to the climate and wider environmental crisis is not obscure – stop burning fossil fuels. But since the correlate of that solution is establishment of a regulatory capitalism (or democratic socialism) distant from the current neo-liberal order, the captains of industry and their congressional, executive, and judicial branch allies answer NO! The fossil fuel magnates and their friends in the home building, automotive, aerospace, defense, and chemical industries would literally rather be dead – or murder their grandchildren — than strand their assets. Capitalist democracy today is a death cult.

Clearly then, the failure to address climate change cannot be laid at the feet of the coal-baron senator from West Virginia, a state with a population smaller than Latvia’s. He may be a heartless and corrupt bastard, but he’s hardly the only one. Nor is it the fault of Joe Biden, weak political vessel though he is. But the president could take steps tomorrow that would significantly slow global warming while at the same time improving his dismal standing in the polls. In addition to the actions outlined above, he could boldly declare a “climate emergency,” restricting international trade in fossil fuel, enabling emergency investments in green jobs and technology; and enhancing climate change mitigation and adaptation across the country.

I’m not frankly optimistic. But sometimes self-interest and political right coincide, and this might be one of those occasions. With enough popular protest and congressional prodding, the U.S. president could wind up doing the right thing — having tried everything else.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at