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Sen. Joe Manchin pulled the plug on major spending to address climate change


Last night, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia pulled the plug on major spending to address climate change. Manchin said he was concerned about inflation right now but is open to negotiating more later. Even so, his fellow Democrats say his refusal to act before the August recess dooms any climate policy deal before the midterms.

NPR's Laura Benshoff is here to help us understand what that means for the U.S. and its commitment to lower emissions. Hey, Laura.


CHANG: OK. I mean, we've seen these negotiations stop and start for - what? - at least a year at this point. So what was even on the table at this point when it came to climate policy?

BENSHOFF: Basically, a lot of money. There is already a massive energy transition underway. People are moving towards electric vehicles, and renewable energy is growing. And the idea behind the climate spending that was in both the Build Back Better bill last year and reconciliation negotiations this year was to speed up that transition and make it more affordable, make it more attractive to invest in. Most recently, the size of that federal subsidy was reported to be as much as $300 billion, with Democrats trimming and tailoring the package to keep Manchin on board. Trevor Higgins with the Center for American Progress gives one example of a proposed program to incentivize clean energy manufacturing in areas that depend on coal, such as Manchin's home state of West Virginia.

TREVOR HIGGINS: And he has spiked all of that. And he's done it, he says, because of inflation. But these investments were designed to cut energy costs.

CHANG: So how did Manchin explain his decision here?

BENSHOFF: He gave an interview on a local radio show in West Virginia this morning, and he said year-over-year inflation is what gave him pause. Those numbers came out this week. And energy prices are a driver of inflation. They caused about a third of the price increases we've all seen in the last year and a half, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. But the Democrats who wanted climate action say that means Manchin just blew a chance to do something about inflation by rejecting policy that would have subsidized energy. I should say NPR reached out to Manchin's office multiple times, and we've had no response yet.

CHANG: No response. OK. Well, we should remind people that President Biden promised his administration would reduce U.S. emissions by, like, half before the decade is out. So how is that goal looking after this development?

BENSHOFF: Not good. I talked to Jesse Jenkins, who leads a team at Princeton University which models the impact of federal policy on climate goals. And he says since Biden took office, the sum of congressional action on climate change has basically barely moved the needle.

JESSE JENKINS: It is extremely likely that the United States will fall well short of our climate goals without the Senate passing some kind of clean energy investment package.

BENSHOFF: And representatives for renewable energy manufacturers echoed this. You know, wind and solar adoption is strong. But in order for the U.S. to cut emissions as quickly as it wants to, they'll have to speed up considerably.

CHANG: OK. Well, I mean, are there other options available at this point? Is there a Plan B, a Plan C? What do you think?

BENSHOFF: You know, environmental groups say failure is not an option. Any action is better than no action. And in a statement today, President Biden vowed to use executive orders for things like energy security and to address climate change. But, of course, those orders often bring lawsuits from fossil fuel companies or GOP state officials, so they can get hung up in court. And, you know, this is something that, without legislative action now, it could be off the table for years to come.

CHANG: That is NPR's Laura Benshoff. Thank you so much, Laura.

BENSHOFF: Thank you for having me.


Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.

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