Sen. Joe Manchin isn’t a climate denier — at least not in the traditional sense. He doesn’t deny the existence of human-caused climate change.
Yet when the West Virginia Democrat announced last weekend that he won’t support President Biden’s signature climate plan, it raised questions about his commitment to addressing a problem that scientists say could cause widespread damage to the planet and its inhabitants for centuries.
The $1.7 trillion "Build Back Better" bill would have directed more than $500 billion toward policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, shifting to renewable energy and slowing global warming.
The bill is almost certainly doomed without Manchin’s support, jeopardizing Biden’s core climate goals — cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Manchin cited a few key reasons for his decision.
The bill would “risk the reliability of our electric grid and increase our dependence on foreign supply chains,” he said. The necessary energy transition is already “well underway,” and pushing it any faster could have “catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years.”
He also cited a comment made more than 10 years ago by former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen. “He testified that the greatest threat facing our nation was our national debt, and since that time our debt has doubled,” Manchin said.
Manchin’s stance may appear contradictory. It at once acknowledges the pressing need to address climate change and cautions against acting on it too quickly or, critically, eliminating the fossil fuels that are driving global warming.
In a new statement yesterday, Manchin doubled down on that messaging. He referenced the “climate change crisis” and the need for solutions. Then he pointed to a need for “innovation, not elimination, to create a cleaner energy future.”
It’s not exactly climate change denial (Greenwire, May 15, 2015). Yet it does fly in the face of the kind of action scientists say is urgently needed to curb global warming: immediate and rapid decarbonization.
It’s not a unique position. Acknowledging the problem of climate change, while simultaneously advocating for the continued burning of fossil fuels, is a common stance among lawmakers, industry groups and corporations alike.
Some scientists have begun to refer to it as the “new climate denial.”
“We see the classic ‘delayist’ tropes here,” said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann in an email. Mann has described the push to delay climate action as a new brand of denial in his recent book, “The New Climate War,” and in recent interviews and op-eds.
Arguments like Manchin’s “have a veneer of credibility but quickly collapse upon scrutiny,” he says.
Other experts also note that outright climate denial — challenging the existence, causes or impacts of climate change — is quickly shrinking from the public discourse. Other tactics aimed at protecting the fossil fuel industry are taking its place.
“Fossil fuel companies — and politicians who need the support of Democratic, Independent, and moderate Republican voters — have realized delay is a safer and more effective strategy than climate denial in the court of public opinion,” said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, in an email.
Manchin, he added, “is both a fossil fuel company owner and a politician who needs support of Democratic, Independent and moderate Republican voters. His delay tactics are an attempt to have his cake and eat it too.”
New denial, old strategy
It’s true that the heyday of outright climate denial in the U.S. is ending.
The percentage of people who don’t believe in the existence of human-caused climate change — or who don’t believe it’s a serious problem — is dwindling. Surveys from Yale University and George Mason University, which track nationwide opinions on climate change, suggest that more than three-quarters of Americans believe global warming is happening and about 60 percent believe it’s driven by human activities.
Large majorities of Americans also believe that climate change is affecting the weather and other environmental hazards, like wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and electrical power outages.
It’s a shift from a low point in 2010, when the same surveys suggested that only about 57 percent of Americans believed climate change was happening, and only about a third were “extremely” or “very” sure of it.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers — who have a long history of contesting the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change — have begun to shift their approach. Republicans in Congress increasingly say they believe that climate change is happening, that it’s caused by human activities and that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
House Republicans, led by Rep. John Curtis of Utah, formed the Conservative Climate Caucus earlier this year in an effort to demonstrate Republican interest in climate issues.
“You’ll see Republicans, instead of running from the climate dialogue, actually jumping in and being part of that dialogue, which is very important for us to be at the table,” Curtis told E&E News shortly after the caucus launched (Climatewire, June 23).
But acknowledging the existence of climate change and the science behind its causes isn’t the same as supporting the scientific recommendations on how to address it. As The New York Times reported in August, Republican lawmakers still largely decline to support the kinds of immediate reductions in fossil fuel burning that scientists say are needed to meet the world’s climate goals.
In an October interview with Inside Climate News, Curtis noted that an area of disagreement among Democrats and Republicans on climate change is “the actual use of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas that has helped the U.S. reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Expressing a desire to curb global warming, but also to continue burning fossil fuels, is central to the positions taken by many Republican lawmakers who claim to take climate change seriously. It’s a position often justified by expressions of concern about the impact of rapid decarbonization on U.S. jobs and the economy.
Manchin’s views are similar. His recent statements suggest that he believes climate change is a problem — but that taking action to decarbonize too quickly poses the bigger risk.
While it may represent a shift for many Republican lawmakers, it’s not a new strategy at all, according to Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and visiting professor at Brown University. It’s a tactic that’s been deployed by the fossil fuel industry for decades.
Brulle, who has analyzed the communication and PR campaigns of fossil fuel corporations through the years, says the industry has typically relied on three key rhetorical strategies. Outright denial of the science of climate change was one of them, for a time.
Highlighting the economic consequences of climate action is a second, more sophisticated strategy, he says — one that’s been deployed for years in fossil fuel messaging strategies. And a third, similar strategy points to the potential international disadvantages of acting too quickly on climate change or decarbonizing faster than other major emitters.
Referring to these strategies as a “new” kind of climate denial feels inaccurate to Brulle.
“It’s old climate obstruction,” he said.
And in many ways, it’s a more sophisticated, difficult-to-counteract strategy than outright climate denial ever was. Leaning on concerns about the economy and the U.S. way of life plays into the public’s emotions, he said. It’s hard to combat with simple facts.
“There’s this emotional coupling that they do in their propaganda efforts to say any attack on the oil industry is an attack on your way of life,” Brulle said. “And so they have this emotional component to their argumentation that is really quite persuasive and useful for them.”
The arguments made lately by Manchin and some Republican lawmakers are a similar tactic, he said. It’s a new use of an old strategy aimed at perpetuating U.S. reliance on fossil fuels.
And in the case of lawmakers like Manchin, it’s also aimed at ensuring reelection by playing to multiple interests at once, experts say. Most people today believe climate change is happening and that it’s a problem. At the same time, not everyone — particularly when it comes to more conservative voters — believes it’s the biggest problem the country is facing.
“The old denial was outright denial — the view that climate change was a hoax,” said David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “What we see with Manchin … is something different: a conflict over political priorities reflected in various ways, including concern about reelection by voters who don’t put climate change at the top of their list of priorities.”
What science says
Delay is a different kind of strategy than outright denial. But it’s still at odds with science.
It challenges the scientific consensus that climate action is proceeding too slowly, that greenhouse gas emissions must begin to fall immediately in order to meet global climate goals — and that it’s too late to wait for uncertain future technologies to mature before taking action.
Manchin’s specific arguments, too, are faulty.
“As for Manchin’s claims that the transition is ‘well underway’ and that faster action would ‘risk the reliability of the grid’ I don’t see compelling evidence that either claim is true,” said Victor in an email.
Manchin: The energy transition is well underway
In reality, it’s not proceeding fast enough.
“A transition of sorts is under way, but it is shallow decarbonization not deep decarbonization,” Victor said.
Biden has set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050. The target is designed to align with the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperatures well within 2 degrees Celsius of their pre-industrial levels and within 1.5 C if at all possible.
It’s true that the U.S. is already shifting toward more renewable energy, more electric vehicles and other carbon-cutting measures in different sectors of the economy. But it’s not currently happening fast enough to halve emissions by 2030 or to hit net zero by 2050. That kind of speed requires additional incentives, of the sort outlined in the "Build Back Better" bill.
Manchin: A fast transition would hurt the electric grid
In reality, continued warming is a major threat to the grid.
Extreme heat, storms, wildfires and other climate-related disasters all pose substantial threats to the grid. These kinds of disasters are growing more severe as the climate continues to warm.
The effects of climate change on the grid have become increasingly stark in recent years. Manchin referenced recent blackouts in California and Texas as a cautionary tale — yet these disasters are a direct testament to the risks of climate change.
Extreme heat in California has triggered rolling blackouts in recent years. The risk of wildfires, which are growing more severe in a hotter and drier climate, has also prompted utilities to cut off power when weather conditions increase the risk of sparking a blaze.
The infamous Texas blackout of February, caused by an unprecedented cold snap, is also a warning about the impact of extreme weather and climate change. While the exact causes of the cold spell remain unclear, experts noted that bouts of extreme winter weather in parts of the U.S. may be driven by atmospheric changes linked to global warming (Climatewire, Feb. 17).
The state also experienced winter blackouts in 2011. And a heat wave in 2019 nearly caused the Texas grid to collapse.
While critics like Manchin have suggested that too much reliance on renewable energy sources like wind and solar could jeopardize the stability of the grid, electricity in Texas is powered predominantly by natural gas. After the February blackouts, experts concluded that gas supply failures were largely to blame.
Just a few months later, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast and left thousands without power. A devastating heat wave sizzled across New Orleans days later, while many people across the city still had no air conditioning.
“There are concerns about many aspects of the grid all the time, and those concerns then lead to action,” Victor noted. So I would not equate those concerns with imminent blackouts if we decarbonize the grid — rather, I would take them as a sign that the nation takes grid reliability seriously."
Manchin: National debt a bigger threat than climate change
In reality, climate change is a major national security concern. And it’s costing the U.S. more and more money over time.
According to NOAA, the number of “billion-dollar” weather disasters — disasters causing at least $1 billion in damages — is increasing over time. Between 1980 and 2000, the average was just 3.7 billion-dollar disasters each year. Between 2000 and 2019, that average more than doubled to about 8.5 events.
As of October, 18 billion-dollar disasters had occurred in the U.S. this year alone. They’ve cost the country more than $2 trillion.
Countless scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events are already worsening as the climate warms, and that they’ll continue to grow more severe in the future.
Meanwhile, experts say that climate change is a growing national security threat. An October report from the Pentagon concluded that climate change has “significant implications for U.S. national security and defense.”
“Increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks and creating new security challenges for U.S. interests,” the report found.