Joe Manchin’s Fickleness Is a Needless Catastrophe

The senator just worsened climate change—and inflation.

An American flag waves in front of a wildfire.
Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty

For its many flaws, the world of cryptocurrency has bequeathed to the English language a vivid new verb: rug-pulling. As its idiom-derived name suggests, rug-pulling is when a crypto developer hypes up a new coin or new project, gets ordinary people to invest in it, and then—all at once—shuts it down in such a way that they take all of their investors’ cash with them. It is a spectacular act of bad faith, a breach of trust so severe that it casts doubt on the entire cryptocurrency community, so-called.

Yesterday, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia rug-pulled Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, committing a betrayal that could shape the character of climate politics in this country for decades to come. Manchin reportedly told Schumer that he could not support any energy or climate investments in the comprehensive Democratic bill meant to enact President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. He also said that he could not support any new tax provisions on corporations or the wealthy.

I have been somewhat sympathetic to Manchin’s concerns in the past, criticizing Schumer earlier this year for ignoring his worries about inflation and the deficit. Even though Manchin had every reason to obstruct climate action—he receives more donations from the oil-and-gas industry than any other politician, for instance, and he and his family have made millions of dollars selling coal to a single power plant in West Virginia—he was right that the process has generally been a mess, and that neither Biden nor congressional Democrats have taken inflation seriously enough since it began to boil over last year.

But this reversal has burned through any remaining goodwill for Manchin among the press corps and, I suspect, the rest of his caucus. That’s because adopting a climate-and-new-taxes framework for the bill was Manchin’s idea, and Manchin has spent the past few months negotiating its specifics with Schumer. For Manchin to back out now, so late in the process, reveals his profound fickleness as a negotiator. Manchin looks not like a levelheaded voice of fiscal moderation, but as windblown and capricious as the weather vane on his houseboat.

Manchin’s decision has almost nothing to recommend it. It is extraordinarily bleak for the climate, putting America’s targets under the Paris Agreement out of reach and throwing a wrench into international efforts to hold back emissions. It subverts American economic and military competitiveness, allowing China’s state-subsidized industries to complete their domination of the nascent clean-energy sector.

And it will worsen inflation. Because the bill would have spent less money than it collected in taxes, the bill was more likely to cool the economy down than heat it up. By reducing long-term demand for oil, the bill was likely to lower gasoline prices—one of the biggest causes of the country’s recent inflation. An earlier version of the package would have saved U.S. consumers hundreds of dollars in energy costs over the next eight years, according to an independent analysis from researchers at Princeton.

Such a foolish decision caps an enormously stupid negotiating process. Manchin has repeatedly set a new goal post, talked Democrats into aiming for it, then walked away at the three-yard line. At the same time, Democrats repeatedly acted against their own interests. Besides ignoring Manchin’s concerns about inflation for too long, Schumer secretly signed an agreement with Manchin last summer that provisionally set the bill’s top-line budget impact at $1.5 trillion, but the majority leader then kept it secret from the rest of the caucus, who were banking on a $3.5 trillion plan.

It is so typical, so stupidly typical, of this legislative process that it might not even be over yet. This morning, Manchin told a West Virginia radio station that he had not unequivocally shut the door on the climate provisions, but had only meant to put them on pause. If Democrats want to pass a bill before the August recess, he said, then they have to give up on the climate provisions. But if they’re willing to wait again—this time ’til September, so that Manchin can see the inflation statistics due to be released next month—then he might consider adding the provisions back in. Democrats have been loath to push such a crucial decision so close to the midterm elections, but technically lawmakers could wait as late as September 30, when the instructions for reconciliation, the parliamentary mechanism that allows Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate with a simple majority, expire.

Or perhaps not. This reversal has incinerated so much charity among lawmakers that talks may essentially be over. That will mean that Biden’s ambitious climate goals will be left to the Environmental Protection Agency, which just saw the scope of its potential powers limited by the Supreme Court, and to state and local governments. Much like last month’s Supreme Court decision, the ultimate consequence will be to make climate action more expensive.

So America’s climate negligence endures. The country’s failure on this front underlies its greater abdication of moral leadership in the world. That is not just due to Senator Manchin’s negligence, of course. It is also the collective responsibility of the Republican Party, whose 50 senators are even more resolutely against investing in clean energy than he is.

The United States, after all, has put more carbon pollution into the atmosphere than any other country, and it has failed for the past three decades to pass any major federal legislation fighting climate change. The Senate, in particular, has failed: That chamber alone prevented the country from adopting President Bill Clinton’s energy tax in 1993, and President Barack Obama’s climate bill in 2009, and now President Biden’s clean-energy investments in 2022. The Senate has been blocking climate legislation for nearly as long as most Americans can remember. (And how ironic that President Joe Biden, who was a senator for 36 years and who was elected to the presidency in part on his promise to make America’s government work normally again, could not reach a deal.)

This status quo cannot persist. It is a scientific certainty: In the coming years, climate change will make itself known through larger wildfires, widening droughts, and more murderous floods. As I wrote earlier this year, severe heat waves and other climate-related disasters are already contributing to shortages and inflation around the world. The era of climate-driven inflation—call it “heatflation”—has arrived. And as climate change continues to sap humanity’s wealth, this stain will persist on Manchin’s record and on ours.

Neither can this accursed state of affairs last forever in politics. As geriatric politicians have blocked climate action at the national level, younger generations—here meaning virtually anyone younger than 50—have turned to corporate climate action as a salve. Yet now Republicans are trying to block companies from reducing their emissions too, casting it as so much wokery. They control enough state governments and enough of the courts that they might succeed. And so an entire generation’s sense of action, their feeling of historical possibility, has been arrested, trapped in the clotting arteries of our elderly leaders and hidebound system.

This moment feels interminable. But what is unsustainable cannot be sustained. If one man can block the industrial development of what is, for now, the world’s hegemon, then its hegemony must be very frail indeed. A pall has settled on our institutions, on Washington, D.C., itself. We shall be lucky to see it lifted.