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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What’s Left of Democracy if Our Fate Is Just Decided by a Coal Baron?

How is it that our fate can be in the hands of a single corrupt fossil fuel profiteer? We cannot accept a system in which Joe Manchin gets to decide our future for us.

Joe Manchin has scuppered Democratic plans for climate legislation, after leading other senators on for months and suggesting he would support it. As the New York Times tells us, while Democrats have “contorted themselves to suit his often-changing dictates and have scaled back their ambitions repeatedly to stay within his red lines,” Manchin “led his party through months of tortured negotiations that collapsed on Thursday night, a yearlong wild goose chase that produced nothing as the Earth warms to dangerous levels”:

[First he] killed a plan that would have forced power plants to clean up their climate-warming pollution. Then, he shattered an effort to help consumers pay for electric vehicles. And, finally, he said he could not support government incentives for solar and wind companies or any of the other provisions that the rest of his party and his president say are vital to ensure a livable planet…. Mr. Manchin’s refusal to support the climate legislation, along with steadfast Republican opposition, effectively dooms the chances that Congress will pass any new law to tackle global warming for the foreseeable future—at a moment when scientists say the planet is nearly out of time to prevent average global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

The Times notes that Manchin has received more campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry than anyone else in the Senate and has personally made millions from the coal business. Manchin is essentially openly corrupt. As Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone noted in an investigation, Manchin’s 

“wealth has been accumulated through controversial coal-related businesses in his home state, including using his political muscle to keep open the dirtiest coal plant in West Virginia, which paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade in fees for coal handling. … West Virginians have been paying millions of dollars each year in higher electricity costs in order to keep running a dirty, inefficient power plant that is sickening and killing people with dirty air, but paying the Manchin family handsomely.”

Goodell quotes Virginia Canter, ethics counsel to Presidents Obama and Clinton, who calls Manchin’s business dealings a transparent “grift” and “one of the most egregious conflicts of interest I’ve ever seen.” Sadly, as we know, there is no punishment whatsoever for corruption in Washington, no matter how egregious it may be. 

Thanks to this corrupt coal baron, then, we are unable to get through even modest, totally inadequate legislation to deal with the greatest crisis of our time. It doesn’t matter whether people would prefer not to boil alive in increasingly-hot summers or have their houses destroyed by wildfires. Manchin is single-handedly preventing us from doing anything about it.

I am feeling particularly aggrieved about this today because the threat of climate change is now personal for me, as it will eventually be for us all. (Living in a mansion in Malibu won’t keep you safe from the flames.) England is about to experience record-high temperatures of up to 102 degrees. In the UK, hundreds of people die in heat waves, particularly old people and people with heart conditions. The heat waves are especially bad because houses and workplaces there don’t tend to have air conditioning, unlike the U.S. where we keep office buildings so frigid that people use sweaters and “office blankets.” My grandmother is 88, has a heart condition, and lives in a house in England with no air conditioning. Needless to say, I’m terrified, and she is preparing to keep cool by keeping her feet in cold water and eating popsicles and such. But I’m angry, because as Bill McKibben observed when I interviewed him recently, several decades ago, climate change was a manageable problem. The inaction of politicians and the destructive profiteering of corporations have turned a very difficult challenge into a total calamity that will cause extreme unnecessary human suffering.

Of course, Manchin is only one of the obstacles. He happens to be an uncommonly noxious villain, having been the “state chair of ALEC and a national director of the Koch-backed pro-fossil-fuel group that has been one of the central forces spreading climate disinformation.” But Democrats only have to plead with Manchin because the Republican Party is 100 percent comprised of people who do not care about the fate of the planet, and with whom even the pretense of negotiation is impossible. The Supreme Court, which is dominated by reactionaries, has recently eliminated the Biden administration’s ability to regulate carbon emissions. If the EPA has any function at all, surely it must be to try to deal with the most pressing environmental crisis in human history. 

But what kind of democracy do we have if public opinion in favor of climate action is simply irrelevant, and the single most important factor deciding what will happen next is how a coal oligarch feels? It is no wonder that young people, who will actually have to deal with the problems that the 74-year-old Manchin is imposing on them, are almost universally disgusted with the political system. Why should any of us have respect for a pseudo-democracy that is destroying our chance at a livable future?

The Democratic Party bears its share of the blame. I think part of the reason Manchin has such a strong upper hand is that Joe Biden is a poor leader who is not actually very seriously committed to climate policy, and had to be forced to profess some commitment to climate action (although he has since reneged on it) through the pressure of young climate activists. Then there are those who argue that Manchin is the only kind of Democrat that one could hope for in “conservative” West Virginia: Nate Silver, for instance, says that having a Democrat from a “Trump +39 state” like West Virginia is a “bonus”; Matt Yglesias says Democrats need to embrace “Manchinism,” i.e., running “conservative” Democrats in “conservative” states. But the idea that we are stuck with Manchin because West Virginia is a conservative state betrays ignorance. No state, including West Virginia, is  inherently conservative. Democrats have lost West Virginia. It used to be a deep blue state. Robert Byrd, who represented the state for decades in the Senate seat now held by Manchin, also evolved on climate change and ended up “speaking out on the damage coal causes in his state and the need for change.” If the state still had Byrd instead of Manchin, it wouldn’t be doomed to reject all sensible climate policy. In fact, since West Virginia is a poor state, Democrats should be winning it consistently, since theoretically they are the party of working people, and the problem here is that the party is associated with rich California vineyard-owners like Nancy Pelosi and is utterly out of touch with the needs of working people. The fact that Joe Manchin represents West Virginia is the fault not just of Joe Manchin, but of Democrats who treat West Virginia as “Trump country” and who do not bother to contest the “red” parts of the country. 

It should not, in fact, be that difficult to get climate policy through Congress. We all have an interest in keeping the world livable. Nobody wants to die in a natural disaster. Joe Manchin is a cartoonish villain, but he is only 1 out of the 100 senators, and theoretically we still live in a country where the people determine who shall govern them. This man should not be able to single-handedly keep us from saving ourselves, and Democrats should not be allowed to use Manchin as a scapegoat and an excuse. “Why is Joe Manchin willing to let the planet burn?” is an interesting psychological question. But “Why are Democrats so incapable of mounting an effective opposition to the unpopular right-wing agenda that everything hinges on Joe Manchin?” is the more important one. 

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