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Has Joe Manchin saved the planet? His climate deal shields progressives from their own worst impulses

Will climate change burn down the House? Credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/ Getty

Will climate change burn down the House? Credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/ Getty


August 3, 2022   5 mins

The stakes associated with any particular climate policy are almost always less than claimed. This rule of thumb, which I’ve learned after more than 30 years working on the climate issue, is worth keeping in mind in the wake of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s about face last week on the Democratic budget reconciliation package.

Only two weeks ago, Manchin, citing concerns about inflation, seemingly killed the package of clean energy investments in the Democrats’ Build Back Better proposal, leading John Podesta of the Center for American Progress to declare that the senator had “single-handedly doomed humanity”. Then, last week, Manchin brought that package back to life, now rebranded as The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The reaction of the American press, which until recently had been mulling kicking Manchin out of the Democratic Party, has been exuberant. Writing in the New Yorker, environmental activist Bill McKibben praised the bill as a “triumph”,  while Time deemed it “the most significant climate legislation in US history”.

This follows over a year in which Manchin, cast in the role of Hamlet, has seemingly held the fate of the planet in his hands. Media hysteria aside, however, Biden’s climate plan was never going to be the difference between apocalypse and salvation.

From its origins during the 2020 primary campaign, Biden’s climate and clean energy package was explicitly positioned as an alternative to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s expansive Green New Deal, which Senate Democrats had refused to vote on. As his rivals sought to outdo one another with sweeping climate policies, most especially Bernie Sanders’ preposterous $14 trillion climate proposal, Biden backed a $1.7 trillion plan that his campaign explicitly characterised as moderate. Whereas other proposal promised to transform American society, the Biden plan focused on infrastructure, reshoring manufacturing, an “all of the above” commitment to clean energy, and technological innovation.

Despite criticism from environmentalists and progressives, Biden never budged from that approach. Upon securing the nomination, Biden rebranded his package “Build Back Better”, and upon winning the presidency, his administration and allies in Congress moved forward to enact it. And while Manchin’s “will he or won’t he” act has transfixed the national media, most of what Biden proposed during his campaign under the banner of “Build Back Better” has already passed into law. A trillion dollars of that $1.7 trillion pledge became law with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law last November, including almost $200 billion for clean electricity transmission, electric vehicle charging, public transit, and climate adaptation. Other elements were included in the Endless Frontier Act, passed in June of 2021, and in the just-enacted CHIPS Act.

While Manchin has been villainised for his ever-changing bottom line on climate action, far too little attention has been paid to progressives’ own ever-changing lines in the sand, which have obscured America’s real accomplishments on climate change while exaggerating the importance of the ill-conceived policies favoured by the environmentalist Left.

Take the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP), a torturous effort to use tax-and-transfer mechanisms to eliminate carbon emissions in the power sector by 2035. From the moment that CEPP was proposed in the spring of 2021, progressive climate advocates claimed that it was central to any credible package to address climate change. Their slogan, “No Climate, No Deal,” meant that Democrats should pass neither the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law nor a budget reconciliation package that failed to include the CEPP. Manchin, for his part, countered that it was an expensive policy that would pay utilities to do things that they would likely do anyway.

Manchin was, in reality, largely correct. Most analyses concluded that the CEPP, even if it worked as advertised, was at best a secondary or tertiary policy lever — the vast majority of the actual emissions reductions in any bill would come from direct investments in clean energy technology. And progressive demands ultimately fell upon deaf ears, with the Left failing to either enact CEPP or prevent passage of an infrastructure bill that lacked the mechanism. But the Left’s complaints, amplified by a compliant national media, succeeded in turning what should have been a popular and desperately needed victory for Biden administration into a footnote in a contentious battle over climate change.

Since the passage of the infrastructure bill last year, Manchin has haggled with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer over the size and composition of the Build Back Better package, as both the national economic picture and Biden’s political fortunes have deteriorated. Now it appears Manchin has engineered a package that includes $386 million in climate and energy spending, as well as an apparent commitment from Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow federal permitting reforms that would allow for the speedy deployment of new energy infrastructure. No less significantly, he has repositioned the entire package as a response to inflation, not climate change.

All that haggling, however, does not appear to have shifted estimates of the reconciliation bill’s climate impact. Most models agree that current policies will result in US emissions in 2030 being 25% to 30% lower than at their peak in 2005. Depending on whose modeling you believe, passage of the reconciliation bill, together with other investments already committed into law, could result in emissions being 40% to 50% below 2005 instead.

But one need not spend much time perusing models to conclude that these projections are best taken with a pinch of salt. They are based upon a range of assumptions about how quickly the economy will grow, how much fossil fuels will cost, how quickly the cost of renewable energy will fall, and much else besides. Meanwhile, the track record of these sorts of estimates is not very good. US emissions today, for instance, remain well below levels that would have been mandated by either the last major Democratic effort to pass sweeping climate legislation — the doomed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 — or by the Obama administration’s short-lived Clean Power Plan. On the other side of the ledger, the European Emissions Trading System, established in 2005, has dramatically underperformed.

Ironically, given the intense media focus on CEPP and other now-defunct items on the progressive wishlist, the most important parts of the new climate package may turn out to be reforms to permitting that Manchin demanded in return for green lighting the deal. Throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at clean tech will do little to reduce emissions if utilities and clean energy developers are unable to build it in a timely fashion.

The same is likely the case with regard to seperate and ongoing efforts to reform licensing of advanced nuclear reactors. Recent modeling by my colleagues at the Breakthrough Institute finds that if the US were able to license and build the first advanced nuclear reactors by the early 2030’s, there would be huge market demand for them even if they are relatively expensive. This is because nuclear reactors provide clean energy around the clock, as opposed to just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

If there is a lesson here, it is that climate policy of the sort that is actually politically viable is at best a weak tool for change. Energy use and emissions are much more strongly influenced by macroeconomic factors and long-term technological trends than they are by federal climate policy. Bottom-up policies to encourage innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies are difficult to square with top-down emissions targets. The former, though helpful, bring highly uncertain emissions benefits. The latter are unenforceable should the necessary technological solutions fail to materialise — and unnecessary if they do.

From Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s original invocation of a Green New Deal, to the empty threats by progressive members of Congress to walk away from any reconciliation package that failed to meet green purity tests, the maximalist demands of the climate movement — and Democratic pandering to them — were always at best political theatre and at worst self-destructive.

In the light of last week’s change of fortune, Democrats can thank none other than Joe Manchin for saving them from their own worst impulses and reorienting their reconciliation package toward the priorities of an electorate that is far more concerned about inflation and energy prices than climate change, all while finding a way to do right by his state, his party, his country, and the climate.


Ted Nordhaus is the co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute and a co-author of An Ecomodernist Manifesto.

TedNordhaus

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Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

“Most models agree that current policies will result in US emissions in 2030 being 25% to 30% lower than at their peak in 2005. Depending on whose modeling you believe, passage of the reconciliation bill, together with other investments already committed into law, could result in emissions being 45% to 50% below 2005 instead.”

Depending on whose modeling you believe? haha trust the science?

Anyway, does offshoring emissions really count as reduction? Does burning ethanol in the auto petrol really mean reduction because it was farmed? Does Wind electricity count as reduced carbon because the turbines and blades were made in China so the co2 was released there, and all the making of roads in the wild places; the millions of tons of concrete and gravel used to ballast them and serve them and not factored in – the resources mined, then refined, manufactured in China to make the solar arrays not counted as USA carbon – I mean, whose modeling do you believe?

It is all BS, the whole game is corrupt to the very core. Tesla ,making a profit off Carbon Credits…….where is that in this mad equation? It is all vudu science, and ignore what is behind the curtain stuff….

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

You took the salient word out of my mouth. Bovine Sh*t. It’s all complete and utter horse hockey, cow manure or whatever you want to call it.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

I agree with you that most of this is greenwashing and it is ALL misrepresented by the media and adherents to the green religion.
The rationale is that for every carbon atom that comes from the biosphere then one is not injected into the biosphere that was not there before, hence not increasing the total amount of C in the biosphere.
The unproven assumption is that the extra C drives up temperatures and that is bad and we need to act NOW. All rubbish.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

If there is anything you need to know about legislation in American politics, it usually does the opposite of what they are selling. The “Affordable” Care Act made healthcare much less affordable. Guess what The Inflation Reduction Act is going to do?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

That is the truth, sir. In fact, whatever they accuse the right of something, you can be assured it is what they are trying to implement. “threat to Democracy” is the slogan du jure.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Peacekeeper missiles come to mind.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Anyone else there who could not care less about zero carbon , alleged climate change ? Does anyone else look into the Sky and see jets whose single flight uses as much fuel as the entire lives of n thousand cars? .. and think ” How is my electric car going to make a jot of difference? … Just like giving 1p to a charity…?

Lorna Dobson
Lorna Dobson
1 year ago

And what of the climate change evangelists who take those jets to get to their save-the-planet summits? Take the bus, Gus.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lorna Dobson
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Sorry – I care.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

I also care, but realize that if earth suddenly reverted back to a 100% agrarian society, the climate would continue to change as it has for a billion years. Just ask a dinosaur.

Steven Campbell
Steven Campbell
1 year ago

Hogwash. Manchin caved in order to get some concessions for Fracking and gas piping in West Virginia. Federal money to support local projects is how most of these otherwise useless money bills get created. So, we’ll now have charging stations but no lithium, rare earths and backup power generation. We’ll stop floods, draughts, heat, cold and any other weather events you can imagine but will have no plan or financing to improve water infrastructure, shoreline mitigation or any of the immediate problem areas that could use the money and some real solutions. Not one pothole will be filled. We are now reaching a point in the discussion where even many skeptics are searching for a way to stop nature but until more and more of us can see the ultimate human disaster in pursuing even a compromised Green New Deal we’ll end up with the same failed Government attempted control of our lives. The control will be there but as in the trillions wasted in New Deal nanny state projects the ultimate outcome will be a lot of money spent and very little good accomplished, unless one considers a loss of freedom a good thing.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

How does one stop a flood or drought? Perhaps the same way we stop a rain cloud or a hurricane?

Punksta .
Punksta .
1 year ago

And of course the true cost of (hopelessly expensive) renewable energy, and the drastic overall wealth reduction that means, steered well clear of.

Last edited 1 year ago by Punksta .
Matt C
Matt C
1 year ago

“climate policy of the sort that is actually politically viable is at best a weak tool for change”
Hence why the philanthropist billionaires – the ones who stand to make the most out of the whole scam – have brought in ESGs. They are perfect way to drive behaviour from corporations (and by a process of filtering, forcing us plebs), without having to go through any kind of pesky democratic process.
If they had to deal with democratic process, they would have to be more clear about the targets they are aiming for, what those targets would deliver, the costs involved, and have it all be properly measurable. In other words, expose their scams to scrutiny.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt C
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt C

It is, in essence, a modern day totalitarianism.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt C

If they had to deal with democratic process, they would have to be more clear about the targets they are aiming for…
Haha! Remember Obamacare? You didn’t have to change your doctor, wouldn’t lose your policy, and would save $2500! All BS, of course. Politicians LIE, that’s what they do. And when the lapdog MSM is backing them up with propaganda and the internet oligarchs are suppressing alternative voices, you get the sheeple voting for this garbage.ï»ż

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

What these days, is the difference between “investment” and “subsidy” and “grant”?
Perhaps not a dictionary definition, but to me, “investment” used to mean skin in the game and risk of losing your own money, as well as gaining if the investment was successful.
Now governments, and other state bodies, call every giveaway of other people’s money “investment”.

Rick Nah
Rick Nah
1 year ago

Don’t worry.the dictionary definition can be changed to fit the current situation.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

“In the light of last week’s change of fortune, Democrats can thank none other than Joe Manchin for saving them from their own worst impulses and reorienting their reconciliation package toward the priorities of an electorate that is far more concerned about inflation and energy prices”
So, put lipstick on that pig and take it to the dance! All they did was wrap up the same old shirt and give it a new name. It will INCREASE inflation – how can it not when it will throw dollars out of a helicopter on the Donkey faithful, that they will then use to drive up demand for cheap junk from China?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Doesn’t matter how many trillions of dollars Sleepy Joe has, it won’t make those rare earths any less rare.

Iris C
Iris C
1 year ago

All I ask is that there is an open debate about climate warming and not (as happened with Covid) the silencing of any contrary point of view. I even think that the statistics are being massaged in order to make the case for drastic measures. For example:-.
At the bottom of my computer it states what the temperature is each day and it is never anything like what is written – 10o less than stated most days.. Today, for example, it was showing 26o and with me wearing warm clothes and having to put on a coat before going out for a walk.. Tonight, as I write this, it is saying 24o, which is absolute fiction.
We have had a cold wind all summer and mostly with grey skies..

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

‘Balancing the priorities of the electorate against doing right by the climate.’

A most revealing disjunction.

Last edited 1 year ago by Christian Moon
Reagan Addam
Reagan Addam
1 year ago

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Last edited 1 year ago by Reagan Addam