This 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.”
The singular focus on Manchin is nothing new. Ever since the Build Back Better bill was introduced in Congress last year, political commentary, news coverage, and climate activists have portrayed Manchin as the US government’s climate decider in chief. “Now it’s up to Joe Manchin,” a Mother Jones headline announced after the House of Representatives passed Build Back Better in November. A month later, after Manchin announced—on Fox News, no less—that he could not support the legislation, a New Yorker headline declared, “Joe Manchin Kills Build Back Better.”
Manchin deserves all this condemnation and more, but it is bizarre that his Republican counterparts haven’t faced this intensity of criticism, even though they are at least as culpable. Search the news stories and public statements cited above, and countless others from the same time frame, and you’ll find that Republicans’ role in blocking Build Back Better is rarely even mentioned—and certainly not identified as the principal reason climate legislation routinely dies on Capitol Hill.
Manchin is only one senator. His opposition to Build Back Better mattered only because all 50 Republican senators stood in lockstep against climate action, just as their party has done for 30 years.
And yet, today’s Republicans pay no political price for torching the planet. In a democracy, elected officials are free to vote for or against whatever they please, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for their choices. But most political observers, journalists, and even political adversaries simply accept the GOP’s climate obstructionism as an immutable fact of life, not worth calling out or wasting energy on.
This means Republicans get a pass on their climate wrecking. They don’t have to endure the kind of nasty headlines directed at Manchin. They aren’t subjected to the very public pressure he has encountered in his day-to-day life, such as when young climate activists staked out his houseboat and demanded to know why he was dooming them to a hellish future. Instead, Republicans get to please their climate-denying voter base as well as their fossil-fuel-industry donors—and never have to explain themselves to the broader electorate, which, as it happens, favors climate action. Manchin gets nearly all the blame.
As a journalist, I’m puzzled and dismayed that many of my colleagues let politicians off the hook like this. After all, it’s easy enough to state the relevant facts, as Nexus Media News did in a welcome exception to most coverage. The Build Back Better bill failed, Nexus reported, “after coal millionaire Sen. Joe Manchin III joined the entire Republican party in opposing action on climate change.”
There’s still time for a course correction before the fast-approaching midterm elections. This November, Americans will be voting on, to paraphrase Guterres, climate action versus climate suicide. But most Americans don’t know that. According to opinion polls, they think that they are voting on inflation and the state of the economy. But transcending each of those issues, vital as they are, is the question of whether the world’s biggest economy and most powerful nation will do its share to halt humanity’s race toward climate apocalypse.
In the weeks ahead, Biden, Democratic candidates, and climate activists can help voters understand the stakes and learn which politicians do and don’t favor climate suicide. Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, has urged fellow activists to “grieve” the defeat of Build Back Better, but only briefly. Then, Tidwell continued, activists must rouse themselves and work “super-hard to elect more pro-climate US senators…. so Joe Manchin’s dirty-energy agenda is permanently left behind.”
We in the press also have a role to play. It is our civic responsibility to hold all electoral candidates accountable and to inform voters about the choices facing them. It’s sad but true that one of America’s two main political parties has repeatedly demonstrated that it opposes strong climate action. Educating voters on that indisputable fact is neither activism nor partisanship. It is telling the truth.
Like an umpire calling balls and strikes, it is the press’s job to report the news fairly and accurately, not to worry if the players don’t like the results. It’s not the press’s fault that Republicans have chosen to embrace climate denial and delay. They are free to choose differently at any time, and if they do, the press should report their change of heart just as plainly. But the days of giving any politician a pass on climate action versus climate suicide must be over, or suicide it will surely be.