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US Politics: Joe Manchin – the senator torpedoing Biden’s climate policy

US President Joe Biden does not skimp on drastic words when it comes to the climate crisis. “Climate change is the existential threat to humanity,” he warned a few days ago. When the United States was hit by storms, floods and forest fires in the summer, Biden spoke of a “red alert” and a “tipping point” at which action had to be taken.

Just before the world climate conference in Glasgow, which begins at the end of the month, Biden’s most ambitious climate protection plans are now in danger of failing – because a single party colleague is torpedoing them: Senator Joe Manchin.

The 74-year-old Democrat is so conservative that he often comes across as a Republican who accidentally ended up in the wrong party. The balance of power in the Senate is so tight that Biden’s 50 Democrats in the Chamber of Congress have to vote as one in order to be able to push through a project. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is always a potential dissenter. But the most notorious troublemaker is undoubtedly Manchin.

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His role in tipping the scales makes the West Virginia senator one of the most powerful politicians in Washington today. Manchin is still largely unknown internationally. The fact that the name of his relatively small and underdeveloped state is more recognizable abroad than his own is probably due to the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. West Virginia is the second largest coal producer in the USA, but only just under 1.8 million of the approximately 330 million Americans live there. Fewer than 20,000 people in the state work in the mining industry.

Some have previously opposed Biden’s Clean Electricity Performance Program, saying the plan would reward companies that switch to “clean” energy sources and financially penalize those that don’t. Manchin is also opposed to Biden’s social plans.

“Joe Manchin just cooked the planet”

Manchin’s blocking attitude could have far-reaching consequences. “He plots to destroy Biden’s climate plan and with it the chances for rapid global progress,” environmental activist Bill McKibben recently wrote on Twitter. “This ranks high on the list of the most consequential actions ever taken by a single Senator; the effects of this vain man will be seen in the geological record.”

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The magazine “Rolling Stone” put it more pop but no less dramatically: “Joe Manchin just cooked the planet,” it said – and that’s not meant in a figurative sense.

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Biden is currently struggling to get his most important projects through Congress since he took office. The two legislative packages provide for the expansion of infrastructure and social services, but by no means only: “Together they contain the most important climate protection measures that the United States has ever taken,” wrote the “New York Times”. One measure in particular – the most important in terms of climate protection – Manchin wants to prevent: A program for “clean electricity” with a volume of 150 billion dollars (129 billion euros), which rewards utilities for the expansion of such power sources and penalizes them otherwise.

The senator argues that private utility companies don’t have to use taxpayer money to get them to expand renewable energies because they were going down that route anyway.

What Manchin does not say: Biden’s program would speed up this process considerably. It aims for the United States to double its share of energy from sources that do not produce climate-damaging CO2 to 80 percent by 2030.

The “coal baron” Manchin

It’s no secret that Manchin has a conflict of interest – just look at the disclosure of his side income. The biggest item last year is almost half a million dollars, which he received in dividends from the coal company Enersystems. Manchin founded the company and then handed it over to his son. According to his own statements, he still holds shares worth between one and five million dollars. Britain’s Guardian calls Manchin – who chairs the Senate Energy Committee – a “coal baron”.

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The USA is considered an important factor in the fight against climate change: it is the world’s largest economy and – behind China – the second largest emitter of CO2 emissions. On his first day as president, Biden ushered in the United States’ return to the Paris climate agreement, from which his predecessor Donald Trump had withdrawn. Since taking office, Biden has called on other governments to step up their efforts to protect the climate and follow the US example. But if Biden can’t even get his own projects through Congress, that should significantly weaken his position at the world climate conference in Glasgow.

Last chance for the Democrats?

Should Biden arrive empty-handed, it would be “bad for US leadership, bad for the talks and catastrophic for the climate. Just disastrous,” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse warned in The Guardian. Whitehouse also said, “The vast majority of Senate Democrats recognize that this is our last chance to act.”

Congressional elections are due in the USA in just over a year, and then the narrow majorities of the Democrats in the Senate and in the House of Representatives could be over. Biden will then probably not be able to push through ambitious climate protection legislation against a Republican-controlled Congress – especially not if he should already fail because of his own party.

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