We’ve Had Other Climate Defeats. This One Is by Far the Weirdest.

Seven ways of looking at where climate action goes from here

A nuclear power plant partly obscured by fog
Bloomberg / Getty

When I started writing about climate change a few years ago, I tried to give readers regular dollops of hope with their gruel. I focused on renewable energy (which was getting cheaper) and American carbon emissions (which were falling) at the same time that I covered sea-level rise, extreme weather, or the collapse of major ecosystems.

The point wasn’t to sanitize the deterioration of the planet. It was to report on the topic honestly. Even after President Donald Trump took office, you could look across the economy and see bright spots of decarbonization, if only policy makers would capitalize on them.

Today, I’m finding very little to sugarcoat. When Senator Joe Manchin pulled the plug on President Joe Biden’s legislative climate agenda last week, he locked in a genuine setback for the country and the world, all but ensuring that billions of tons of unnecessary carbon pollution will stream into the atmosphere. The planet’s climate is not doomed. Indeed, the nature of the problem is such that until the Hudson River turns to ash or crocodiles migrate to Greenland, the climate is never truly doomed.

But Manchin’s fickleness really has held back the scale of emissions reductions that will be possible over the next decade. Fixing climate change is like paying down a large debt: By neglecting that work now, we shall only find ourselves in deeper trouble in the future. And to move past that defeat, we should have the courage to look squarely at it. Here are seven ways to think about what just happened and what’s to come:

1. This is a truly irreversible climate defeat.

Here’s the status quo: The United States is slowly reducing its carbon pollution. Last year, even as carbon emissions came surging back from their pandemic collapse, the country’s climate pollution remained 17 percent below its all-time high. Exorbitant fossil-fuel prices and continued technological improvement will help emissions keep falling through this decade. By 2030, the country’s emissions could be 24 to 35 percent below their all-time peak, according to a new analysis from the Rhodium Group, a private energy-research firm.

But President Biden aimed to cut emissions 50 percent by that year (and America has pledged as much under the Paris Agreement). The climate provisions in an earlier draft of Build Back Better would have gotten us nearly there. With no further legislative action, the country is unlikely to meet that goal, meaning that an extra 5 billion tons of carbon will flood the atmosphere, trapping additional heat in the Earth system and acidifying the ocean. That carbon will then persist for centuries, triggering essentially permanent sea-level rise.

Most news cycles in American politics are forgotten in a few months or years. This failure could resonate into the fourth millennium.

2. But what a weird defeat it was.

The Senate. It’s always the Senate. In both 1993 and 2010, the Senate tried and failed to pass a comprehensive climate or energy bill. Since Manchin’s about-face, lots of people have compared this effort’s failure to those earlier collapses. That’s where I leapt in my immediate postmortem too.

But with a few days of distance, this attempt looks quite different. In 1993, when President Bill Clinton failed to pass an energy tax that would have encouraged renewables, Beltway reporters blamed the so-called BTU tax for Clinton’s midterms defeat. Even 15 years later, Clinton was still warning Democrats against passing anything that even looked like an energy tax. And when President Barack Obama could not coax a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate in 2010, it was the policy, again, that was deemed as being at fault. (During his first Senate campaign, Joe Manchin ran a TV ad where he promised to “take dead aim” at the bill, then shot a bullet through its text.)

What’s weird is that none of that has happened with Build Back Better: Even with gas prices at all-time highs, the climate provisions never precipitated the kind of mass-media feeding frenzy that greeted the BTU tax or cap-and-trade bill. A day after Manchin effectively killed the climate provisions, he told a West Virginia radio station that he didn’t object to any of the particulars of the climate provisions, and that he might consider supporting them in a month or so, depending on what inflation looks like then.

That could mean that Democrats’ multi-year effort to find a broadly popular climate policy was successful: The particular mix of tax credits, industrial subsidies, and small fees that the party settled on can withstand months of public scrutiny without snapping. But it also leaves the party in an odd place. Its once-in-a-decade attempt to pass climate policy has failed, but its chosen policies survived intact.

3. This is why the climate movement (and America) can’t have nice things.

Every so often, a certain stripe of pundit wonders why the climate movement can’t strike a more agreeable tone. Why are activists against all fossil fuels, in all situations, when natural gas is geopolitically important and much less carbon-intensive than coal? Why do they focus on sacrifice, on the potential catastrophe of climate change, rather than the prosperous energy abundance that renewables could unlock?

I have engaged in some of this myself, and it’s not always so cut and dried: Sketching a big, beautiful low-carbon future was exactly what the Green New Deal was supposed to do, at least at first.

Well, this is why. This farce of a legislative process is why. In order for climate advocates to work productively with the moderates who still manage much of the energy system, they must feel that some iota of trust exists among them. They must share some vision of national prosperity, outside of their respective issues, on which they can work together. When Manchin walked away from talks that he had dutifully participated in for more than a year, he seemed to confirm activists’ fears that he wasn’t acting in good faith. For the movement, the takeaway is that energy issues remain zero-sum: Either you win or I do.

4. The misery of this defeat is going to make climate activists more militant.

The shock of Manchin’s betrayal will reverberate through climate politics for the next several years, if not the next decade. Build Back Better was progressives’ attempt to improve the country’s economic and geostrategic position while rapidly cutting its emissions. With that reform in shambles, and the possibility of any other legislation years off, a share of the climate movement will likely redirect its energy toward cutting emissions by any means necessary.

Over the past few years, decarbonization advocates have pushed a vision of a thriving, energy-abundant, zero-carbon economy. They should keep doing this. But that vision caters to a world where Congress can spend money to lift all boats. Now the rhetorical whiplash is going to be shocking. Unlike negotiating over legislation, where all parties must demonstrate their good faith by suggesting workable and popular proposals, executive action proceeds by strike and by salvo: Regulators will sally forth, making maximal demands so as to terrify their opposition, then let the courts cut them back.

The result could get ugly. Only about 240 coal plants remain in the United States. They produce more than half of the power sector’s climate pollution, or about an eighth of the country’s emissions overall. Federal bureaucrats and Democratic governors are going to seek to close them however they can. And if regulators fail there, then the country could see more direct forms of action.

5. The alphabet soup of state and local climate laws will be more important than ever.

Over the past two decades, blue states have erected a messy set of rules and guidelines meant to reduce emissions while they wait for the federal government to act. They are known by their initials: the Northeast’s cap-and-trade electricity market, or RGGI; California’s electric-car inducements, called ZEV; the patchwork of clean-energy requirements across state-level power grids, known as CES. Keeping track of these various programs is confusing—trying to explain how they all fit together, even more so. I had hoped that a climate bill would rid us of this alphabet soup once and for all. Alas, these programs are going to become even more important, and blue states will have to spawn more of them.

They might especially focus their attention on the transportation sector, which is now the most climate-polluting part of the economy. Mayors and governors must encourage car alternatives as quickly as possible: Congress’s failure has left them with no other choice. Protected bike lanes, more reliable and rapid bus service, and congestion pricing must come to more cities than just the few biggest one on the coasts.

6. The mythological “bipartisan climate bill” will come back.

Not that all climate campaigning will go guerrilla. The vision of an abundant energy future will attract a scrum of billionaires, political operatives, and misty-eyed business leaders intent on resurrecting that oldest of pundit dreams: a bipartisan climate bill.

The worst thing is that they’ll be right: The country actually does need a bipartisan energy agenda. The Ukraine war has revealed the fragile state of America’s energy security; although the U.S. has considerable domestic energy resources, it fails to use them strategically, and its various industries could benefit from the regulatory certainty that only legislation could provide.

What’s funny is that even as both parties drift away from market fundamentalism, market-style reforms are the most fertile ground for compromise. Zero-carbon forms of energy, such as nuclear and geothermal, face legitimately higher barriers to construction than fossil-fuel infrastructure; it is next to impossible to build major power lines. Loosening those rules could be a win for all involved—Democrats will get to unlock the clean-energy economy, while Republicans can claim that they’re repealing what are at least nominally “environmental” regulations. But then again, bipartisan deals on far more innocuous subjects than this one have died on the rocks.

7. The carbon-removal industry is about to get a lot more serious.

Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed last year, the Department of Energy has more than $12 billion to essentially create a domestic carbon-removal industry. As one of the bigger pots of money in that bill for climate, it will become a much bigger focus over the next few years; it will also plausibly be sustained by a future GOP presidential administration because it doesn’t require transitioning away from fossil fuels. Carbon removal cannot save the planet nor even avert the worst of climate change. But there is bipartisan support for it, and actual legislation has gotten through Congress that supports it. That means it will be the centerpiece—or at least a central talking point—of America’s climate agenda for years to come.