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Manchin says Build Back Better's climate measures are risky. That's not true

Wind turbines silhouetted against the sky at dawn near Spearville, Kan. in January. Senator Joe Manchin's rejection of a sweeping spending bill effectively kills President Biden's ambitious climate plan to transform the nation's heavily fossil-fuel powered economy into a clean-burning one.
Charlie Riedel
Wind turbines silhouetted against the sky at dawn near Spearville, Kan. in January. Senator Joe Manchin's rejection of a sweeping spending bill effectively kills President Biden's ambitious climate plan to transform the nation's heavily fossil-fuel powered economy into a clean-burning one.

For months, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has been watering down the climate provisions in the Build Back Better legislation. Now, his final rejection of a stripped down version effectively kills President Biden's ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions deeply enough to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. But the objections Manchin described to the bill's climate measures are misleading.

Here's what's really going on:

The free market is not moving fast enough to avert climate catastrophe

In a statement explaining his decision Sunday, Manchin said, "The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway." He means the transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other forms of renewable power. While it's true the U.S. is shifting away from fossil fuels, it's happening far more slowly than climate scientists say is needed to curtail the carbon pollution that is disrupting the climate.

Earlier this year, Manchin's argument that the U.S. should not "pay companies to do what they're already doing" killed off a keystone Build Back Better provision that would have used carrots and sticks — payments and penalties — to push utilities to speed up the shift to renewables, roughly doubling the amount of wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy put on the grid each year.

That still left hundreds of billions of dollars in tax incentives and other support for clean energy, electric vehicles, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Without that kind of congressional funding, it's hard to see how Biden could juice the energy market to reach his goal of making the nation's electricity sector carbon neutral by 2035, and the entire economy carbon neutral by 2050.

The biggest threat to the grid is not clean energy, but climate change

Manchin's statement rejecting Build Back Better also warned about shifting to clean energy too quickly. "To do so at a rate that is faster than technology or the markets allow will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years," he said.

He's referring to major power outages in those states. Some conservative politicians were quick to blame solar or wind power for blackouts. But in each case, energy experts pointed to lack of preparation for increasingly extreme weather events — specifically, heat in California, and historic cold in Texas.

In the Texas February blackout, federal regulators found that natural gas supplies failed the most dramatically. Nationwide, the nonprofit research and news group Climate Central says that since 2000, there's been a 67% increase in major power outages from weather and climate related events.

The aging U.S. grid needs major changes, both to deal with current demand and then to accommodate far more renewable energy. The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law includes billions of dollars to help with that, including by expanding long-distance transmission to get renewable energy from where it's generated to cities where it's used.

Climate change is a national security threat, too

Manchin accused his fellow Democrats of wanting to "dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face," specifically citing the national debt. And he said he'd never forgotten a decade-old warning from the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the "greatest threat facing the nation was the national debt."

But in October the Pentagon said climate change is an existential threat that's already challenging U.S. security. A report found that "increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told NPR that Congress should pay attention to the clean energy plans Biden was trying to get through Congress. "We need to have the rest of the government with us," she said. "We can't do it just here at DOD."

Manchin has a personal stake in helping the coal industry

West Virginia's economy has long relied on the coal industry, and there are jobs at stake as coal use continues its long decline. Manchin's family also has a coal business that he helped found, and he reported he made nearly half a million dollars from it last year. That business could have been hurt by President Biden's climate plans, which aimed to dramatically reduce coal-fired electricity.

The Biden administration has repeatedly talked of easing the transition for fossil-fuel producing communities, for example with targeted investment to create new jobs to replace those that will be lost. The Build Back Better legislation also included consumer rebates to help with energy costs, buying electric cars and installing solar.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.