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Joe Manchin deserves (some) credit for fighting climate change

You do, in this circumstance, gotta hand it to him.

Joe Manchin in a press scrum.
Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said this week he will not seek reelection.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — with nearly $370 billion allocated to wind turbines, electric cars, transmission lines, heat pumps, and environmental cleanup — is the single largest piece of US legislation to keep climate change in check.

And West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who this week announced he will not seek reelection, was absolutely essential to getting it over the line. Don’t take my word for it: President Joe Biden specifically praised Manchin this week for his vote on the IRA, which passed the Senate 51-50 on August 7, 2022.

It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal the Inflation Reduction Act is for climate change. The country has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The IRA on its own is poised to cut emissions by about 40 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Manchin was also critical in shaping the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that includes funding for adapting to the effects of climate change, though that law passed the Senate 69-30.

It’s also important to note how difficult it was to pass these bills, in no small part due to Manchin himself. As the deciding vote, he previously tanked the $555 billion Build Back Better Act in 2021. And as legislators scrambled to come up with a backup plan, Manchin’s opposition to the Clean Energy Performance Program — which would pay power utilities to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources — kept a powerful tool to limit emissions in the box.

In response, environmental activists focused their ire on Manchin, noting his longstanding ties to the fossil fuel industry. According to Open Secrets, Manchin was the largest Senate recipient of money from the coal, oil, and gas industries in 2022. Campaigners also painted him as wealthy and out of touch: They accosted him on his houseboat and surrounded his Maserati.

During negotiations for the BIL and IRA, Manchin effectively leveraged his position. He landed a $925 million hydrogen hub to develop clean hydrogen in West Virginia. In the IRA, Manchin secured a permanent extension of the federal fund for coal miners affected by black lung disease, incentives to build renewables in old fossil fuel mining regions, and tax credits for hydrogen and carbon capture, technologies that could extend a lifeline to coal, oil, and gas.

He’s been pleased with the results. “Today, West Virginia is attracting more investment, opportunity, and jobs than it has in decades,” he said in a video announcement. “Here at home and across the country, we are building more roads, bridges, manufacturing plants, and energy infrastructure than almost any time in American history.”

In the end, the IRA was a fraction of the size of its earlier incarnations and nowhere near the sweeping transformation envisioned by the environmental activists and legislators who dreamed up the Green New Deal. It doesn’t fully put the US on course to meet its climate goals. And it doesn’t contain a price on carbon, something that economists across the political spectrum say is foundational to effective climate policies.

Since the IRA passed, Manchin has worked to weaken some of its provisions, like the $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit. He also secured approval for a new natural gas pipeline during negotiations over the debt ceiling this summer. However, he failed in his effort to relax federal permitting rules to allow more construction, something that would likely benefit fossil fuel as well as renewable energy development.

So why credit Manchin on climate?

In short, he easily could’ve said no, but he didn’t. Keep in mind that climate change legislation has long struggled in Congress, even under far more favorable circumstances. In 1997, the Senate, with a 52-seat Republican majority, voted 95-0 against the Kyoto Protocol, an early attempt at an international climate treaty. The 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act, a.k.a. Waxman-Markey, which would have created a cap and trade scheme to limit carbon dioxide emissions, didn’t even come up for a vote in the Senate where Democrats had a 60-vote majority because of the threat of a Republican filibuster.

Manchin, a Democrat in a state Trump won by almost 39 points in 2020, has also been in a dicey position. Despite this, Manchin voted with Joe Biden 88 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Republicans, if anything, have become even more hostile to action on climate change. Every Republican voted against the IRA, including the two senators from Texas, the largest wind energy-producing state; the two senators from Louisiana, which is losing land to sea level rise; and the two senators from Florida, where insurers are fleeing due to mounting losses from extreme weather. None of the Republican contenders for president are willing to say that humans are heating up the planet.

Climate change, at its core, is a collective action problem. To limit warming, everyone is going to have to eventually zero out their greenhouse gas emissions, not just in the US but around the world. That demands a radical transformation of the global economy, and the window for action is slamming shut. Those changes require building coalitions, making concessions, and taking steps that appear frustratingly inadequate because the alternative is dithering as the situation gets worse. This year is likely to be the hottest year humanity has ever measured and possibly the hottest humans have ever experienced, a grim window into the future of a warming world.

The same challenge is playing out at an international scale. At the end of November, climate negotiators from around the world will gather at the COP28 conference for a deliberative process somehow even more arcane and vexatious than the US Senate. At the meeting — held in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer — countries whose economies depend on fossil fuels will have to come to an agreement with countries baking under extreme heat or being swallowed up by rising seas. Countries that are literally at war with each other will have to sign off on the next steps to limit carbon dioxide.

So one can deride all the features of the US political system that end up putting so much weight on one Senate vote — Senate malapportionment, a right-wing-dominated Supreme Court, archaic legislative traditions — but unless any of these variables change, that single vote matters, even if it’s always milked for maximum drama.

Whether his decision was sincere, cynical, or hypocritical, actions speak louder than words, and Manchin ultimately delivered a victory for Democrats and US efforts to curb climate change. And whether or not Democrats and environmental campaigners are feeling grateful, they’re facing a much more hostile landscape for the Senate in the next election and may soon find that they will miss him when he’s gone.