It got lost in the haze of the attacks on the United States Capitol building by an army of Trump loyalists, but the success of two Democratic candidates in what are known as ‘run-off’ elections in the state of Georgia had a huge impact on the future of climate in the US and consequently, the world.
Previously, the Republican party held a majority in the Senate (a part of Congress that creates new laws), in the US. That meant any and all proposed climate legislation was easily blocked. With the success of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in those elections, the balance in the Senate tipped such that the Democrats hold a majority by a single vote.
Ossoff and Warnock both ran explicitly on messages of environmental justice, ambitious climate policy and strong renewable and clean transport investments. A massive turn-out from climate campaigners in Georgia, particularly focusing on local issues relating to Black communities and pollution.
“Due to the lasting effects of historic racial segregation and ‘redlining’, different ethnic groups still tend to live in different areas and black and Latino communities are more likely to have toxic waste facilities nearby. Black and Latino people are more likely to breathe polluted air and die from asthma,” writes Joe Lo at Climate Home News.
This is undeniably good, and the win was hard fought. But this means the Democrats must all vote unanimously on legislation for it to pass the Senate. That means acquiring the support of the most conservative Democrat on climate legislation that must, in line with the Biden agenda, be highly progressive and ambitious. Biden promises to eliminate all GHG emissions from the grid by 2035, and reach net zero by 2050.
As you might expect, the most conservative Democrat is pretty damn conservative. Senator Joe Manchin hails from the coal state of West Virginia, and is set to be the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He has long taken a strong line of extending the dangerous use of fossil fuels as long as possible, and avoiding legislation that pushes down on fossil fuel mining or usage, favouring “innovation” and incentives instead.
We must strike balance that acknowledges climate change exists & that fossil fuels are a vital part of our energy mix. #CommonSenseOnClimate
— Senator Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) June 25, 2014
Manchin hasn’t changed much. Recently, he came out in opposition to the progressive Green New Deal policy packages, is an advocate of “clean coal” and, after the Senate win, is now warning Democrats that “you cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner environment”, as reported by the Washington Examiner’s Josh Siegel. Manchin told Siegel that “you can use coal and oil and gas in much cleaner fashion,” and that fossil gas “has to be” part of the energy mix because it is “very efficient”.
Want to depress yourself? Read this interview with Joe Manchin. He's against doing anything, even a Clean Electricity Standard. He loves fossil fuels. He doesn't want to get ambitious with reconciliation. He's just awful. https://t.co/Eq8yQdSsVv
— David Roberts (@drvolts) January 19, 2021
Journalists, experts and climate commentators in the US are careful to avoid doom and gloom when it comes to Manchin’s role in the Biden administration. He seems to have a strong focus on technological, rather than social or justice-driven climate solutions, but he is no ‘denier’ and broadly accepts the need for strong action, and may be open to negotiation and working with climate groups.
There are also a variety of other options – as discussed on the US climate podcast ‘Political Climate’, some Republicans could even be brought over to vote on bills that Manchin does not support.
It is remarkably analogous to the position of Australian MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who represents a coal mining district and has consequently taken a conservative stance on climate action. Fitzgibbon openly supports axing climate ambition to lower levels (such as supporting the government’s insufficient 26-29% Paris targets), and increasing the expansion of fossil fuel extraction in Australia.
Fitzgibbon’s pressure has clearly visible impacts on the positions taken by the Labor party in Australia, contributing to an inability for the party to address the heart of the problems with the government’s climate positions, and stopping them from taking up an ambitious position on climate.
There’s no certainty the US Democrats will end up stuck in the same quagmire. We’re in uncharted territory here. Donald Trump is mulling over cleaving supporters from the Republicans and starting a new party. 2021 will see acceleration of climate action like nothing we’ve seen prior, even as emissions rise as COVID19 recovery occurs. We don’t know what pandemic recovery will look like. There are going to be surprises, but we should set our expectations accordingly.
Ketan Joshi is a European-based climate and energy consultant.