Democrats May Be on the Verge of Climate Disaster

The party’s climate measures suddenly face a tough battle in Congress.

Hundreds of young climate activists rally in Lafayette Square on the north side of the White House on June 28, 2021.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

This is an excerpt from The Atlantic’s climate newsletter, The Weekly Planet. Subscribe today.

Updated at 11:26 a.m. on September 23, 2021

I’m starting to become concerned about President Joe Biden’s ability to pass a climate bill. They’re speaking sotto voce, but still: In the past few days, Democrats on the party’s left and right flanks have started to hint that, well, in some circumstances, given some contingencies, they might prefer no bill to a negotiated compromise with the rival flank.

The most worrying signs so far have come from Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who has received more donations from the coal, gas, and oil industries in the current election cycle than any other senator. Manchin was never going to be an easy customer; in 2010, he shot a bullet through President Barack Obama’s cap-and-trade bill. Yet he seemed on board with the Clean Electricity Performance Program, the all-important (if fluidly named) Democratic proposal that would push utilities to generate more of their energy from zero-carbon sources every year. The CEPP would eliminate the greater part of 1 billion tons of climate pollution by itself and is essential to meeting the U.S. goal under the Paris Agreement.

Manchin has waffled on the plan through the year, but has never rejected it outright as he has a carbon tax. As West Virginia’s governor in 2009, he signed a relatively weak version of the policy into law. Now, however, he is writing an alternate version of the clean-electricity plan, The New York Times reported this week, that allots a larger role for natural gas and does not require utilities to decarbonize as quickly.

More worrying is the prospect that Manchin will not allow any change at all. He has privately said that Democrats should take a “strategic pause” and wait until 2022 to pass the reconciliation bill, Axios reported on Sunday. Such a proposal suggests that he is disquietingly comfortable with failing to pass anything at all. Democrats control the Senate by only a single vote, and 17 of their caucus’s members, including Manchin, are older than 70. Their House majority isn’t much bigger. Given that lawmakers have a counterproductive fear of doing much of anything ambitious in the same year that they face a midterm election, Manchin’s pause is akin to saying that no bill might be better than something.

The other wavering vote is that of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who comes from the fossil-fuel-friendly state of Arizona. She can be a wild card in negotiations but so far has seemed to focus more on Democrats’ health-care policy than their climate wrangling.

Also ominous, though, is that a small group of far-left environmental groups have started to strike the same note. They have demanded that any Clean Electricity Performance Program allow only solar, wind, and geothermal energy, leaving no role for other zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear. They were joined, somewhat shockingly, by the otherwise mainstream progressive group Indivisible. Such a mandate is disconnected from reality: Insisting on a renewables-only grid would not just cost more than the entire reconciliation bill, but violate the pro-nuclear plank of the bipartisan infrastructure plan, which progressive lawmakers in the House agreed to last month. In other words, the decision to allow some nuclear power in this bill has already been made; the groups are telling someone not to eat a sandwich when the crumbs and empty wrapper are already on the ground. Even the Union for Concerned Scientists, which was founded in 1969 as an anti-nuclear watchdog, now says that existing nuclear plants must remain open if the United States hopes to reduce its carbon pollution fast enough to avoid catastrophe. Yet Indivisible and other groups have warned that no plan that deviates from renewables would be better than a flawed plan, according to Politico.

I feel for these groups, to be honest. They may be trying to even the stakes, which remain tilted in the centrists’ favor. As the Michigan State University political-science professor Matt Grossmann recently observed, Manchin and Sinema would prefer no deal to what progressives want, while progressives would prefer Manchin and Sinema’s version to no deal. But if this sort of brinkmanship renders legislation unpalatable, then lawmakers won’t swallow it. And the U.S. will go at least another decade without a climate law.

Democrats are haunted by 2009. That year, President Obama came to office promising to reform America’s health-care system and finally get serious about reversing climate change. He managed to do the first. His failure to accomplish the second has spawned a decade of appraisals.

The most authoritative of these was written by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist. In 2013, she argued that environmentalists had gone astray by focusing too much on elite bipartisan wrangling in Washington, D.C. Despite months of reaching out to Republicans and supplying conservative-friendly climate bills, climate groups failed to secure a single GOP vote in support of the 2009 bill. She also faulted the U.S. environmental movement for building membership organizations solely at the state or municipal level.

What was needed, she wrote, was a mass climate movement: “a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left.” Only a broad movement could overcome the “right-wing elite and popular forces” that stood in the way of actually doing something.

From this proposal, and others like it, a decade’s worth of climate groups were born. In September 2014, more than 300,000 people marched in New York City with the People’s Climate March. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a membership-based group that supports carbon pricing, gained steam, as did the left-wing activist group In 2017 came the Sunrise Movement and, the next year, its demand for a Green New Deal. These groups all aimed to engineer the kind of mass mobilization around climate change that Skocpol had called for.

Today, the fate of another climate bill hangs in the balance, and I think it’s fair to ask: What role can these groups actually play? If you look at Sunrise’s power, specifically, it seems far more subtle than was once advertised. Back in June, Sunrise held a protest at the White House, demanding that Biden commit to creating a Civilian Climate Corps, a New Deal–inspired program that would employ young people to retrofit buildings and manage national wildland. The activists held signs with slogans like Biden, You Coward, Fight for Us. At the time, some commentators criticized Sunrise for not focusing on the true opponents of climate policy. “If you want to protest someone, protest the tiny handful of House Republicans who hold seats that Biden won and try to pressure them into backing the bill,” the center-left pundit Matthew Yglesias said. Others suggested that they protest Manchin.

Yet the nature of Sunrise’s power is more convoluted than that. Sunrise has little ability to coerce Manchin or Sinema, the most ardent critics of climate action in the Democratic caucus. Its power flows from its credibility with parts of the Democratic electorate: When Sunrise speaks, a cohort of educated, climate-terrified progressives listen. And if Sunrise says that a certain bill is inadequate to solving the climate crisis, or that Biden has sold the party out to fossil-fuel interests, those progressives will hear—and become so discouraged they’ll toss their hands up. And although Manchin might not need that cohort’s votes, other Democrats do.

Sunrise, in other words, holds a Damoclean sword above blue-state Democrats. The initial promise of Sunrise was that it would mobilize progressives to fight climate change. But its most potent power is the ability to demobilize, by instructing progressives that Democrats aren’t serious about climate change and aren’t worth their time, money, and effort. That isn’t a very enviable position for either Sunrise or the mainstream Democratic Party to be in. With any luck, nobody will need to discover what will happen if it changes—and the sword comes clattering to earth.