Republicans Shouldn’t Get a Pass on Climate

Covering Climate NowThis story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story.

We have a choice: collective action or collective suicide,” António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said last week as vast swaths of the planet baked in record-breaking heat that has killed thousands of people so far in Europe alone, with the numbers expected to rise, and sparked wildfires that imperil countless more. “To tackle the climate emergency,” Guterres added, we need a “decade of decisive climate action.”

But Republican officials decided against climate action decades ago, and have long refused to accept that humans are causing climate change, much less that it threatens all of civilization. Despite mountains of scientific findings and heartbreaking real-world evidence, GOP leaders, including (but certainly not limited to) Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Scalise, have demonized the very idea that climate action is important. Above all, congressional Republicans have opposed every major piece of legislation intended to tackle the onrushing crisis.

Which is why President Joe Biden found himself giving a speech on July 20 announcing executive actions to deal with what he called the “climate emergency”—even as he stopped short of declaring an official national emergency—including more wind power and helping low-income households pay for air-conditioning.

Biden hinted that more executive actions may follow, and those might help, but the unfortunate truth is that executive action is a poor substitute for actual legislation. Lawsuits—which affected industries would surely file—can delay and blunt the impact of executive orders, and the next president can immediately undo them. But Biden has little recourse now that his Build Back Better climate bill is dead.

Who killed Build Back Better? Judging from news coverage and outraged statements by Democrats and climate activists, it’s not Republicans who are to blame. The villain is one man and one man only: Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.

Manchin’s announcement last week that he would not support more federal climate spending triggered a gusher of denunciation. Manchin “just torpedoed Democrats’ climate agenda,” read a CNN headline. He “intentionally sabotaged” Biden’s climate program, Senator Bernie Sanders thundered on ABC News. Alluding to the millions of dollars of coal company stock that Manchin owns, Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann told The Guardian that Manchin is “willing to see the world burn as long as it benefits his near-term investment portfolio.”

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