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With the loss of Manchin's vote, Biden's climate change agenda may be doomed


With the U.S. Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, the White House could not afford to lose even one Democratic senator to advance its major social spending and climate change legislation. Well, on Sunday, it lost one.


JOE MANCHIN: If I can't go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can't vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't.

SHAPIRO: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin told "Fox News Sunday" he couldn't support the Build Back Better package, which includes half a trillion dollars in climate investments. And so after a year of more record-breaking extreme weather, while scientists warn worse is to come, President Biden's climate change agenda may now be doomed.

To take stock, we are joined by Jeff Brady, Lauren Sommer and Dan Charles of NPR's climate team. Good to have you all here.




SHAPIRO: To start with you, Jeff, Manchin's vote was crucial. What happened?

BRADY: Well, let's remember, Senator Manchin had already watered down this bill that was aimed at cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. It's pretty clear the coal industry would have been a big loser there. Manchin, of course, is from West Virginia, a big coal state. And he has a financial interest in his family's coal company.

And, you know, in making that announcement yesterday, Manchin - he said a few things that are misleading. He said it doesn't make sense to pay billions to encourage utilities to transition to cleaner energy because they're already doing that. But scientists tell us that transition, it's not happening fast enough to limit global warming and avoid the worst disasters.

Manchin also warned that transitioning too fast might lead to power blackouts like recent ones in Texas and California. But energy experts link those to extreme weather, the kind of weather scientists say they're experiencing more often because the climate is changing.

SHAPIRO: Let's explore that connection. Lauren, we're at the end of a year that has brought a relentless string of devastating, often deadly extreme weather events in the U.S. What role does climate change play?

SOMMER: Yeah. Many of the extreme events that happened this year are supposed to be rare. It really was the year of these 1 in 1,000 year events, things that have a .1% chance of happening. That includes that record-breaking heat wave in June in the Pacific Northwest, which sent almost 3,000 people to the hospital. In August, there was extreme flooding in Tennessee that killed 20 people. And later that month, you know, the remnants of Hurricane Ida cause flooding in the northeast, and dozens of people drowned in their cars and basement apartments.

The science is showing that in general, the extremes are getting more extreme. But scientists can now also look at each individual event to find the fingerprints of climate change. And one study showed that it made the Pacific Northwest heat wave 150 times more likely to happen.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, emissions in the U.S. don't only affect the U.S. The U.N. climate summit took place in Glasgow last month. Dan, you and I were both there together. Review with us what the Biden administration has been trying to do on the world stage in its first year.

CHARLES: It's worth remembering, that Biden plan we're talking about, it was designed to meet the requirements of an international agreement from six years ago in Paris, where nations committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees. So at that summit, these countries came together in Glasgow, Scotland, to basically see how this was going. The chairman of the conference, a British politician named Alok Sharma, kept repeating this phrase.


ALOK SHARMA: Paris promised. Glasgow must deliver.

SHAPIRO: And did Glasgow deliver?

CHARLES: It delivered a little bit. Countries did make new promises to cut greenhouse emissions. The U.S. actually came in with the biggest pledge based on that Biden plan that's now looking unlikely to become reality. China and India released new goals where the cuts didn't look so big at first glance, but they would be a big shift away from the course that those countries have been on with emissions going up and up and up.

Still, when the U.N. added up all those pledges, it said this is not enough. This will not get us to that 1.5-degree goal set in Paris. What's actually required is quite drastic. It takes cutting net global greenhouse emissions by about half within 10 years and down to zero by the middle of the century.

SHAPIRO: So what does it mean if these goals don't get met? I mean, Lauren, we keep hearing that one event or another was the worst on record, but it's only going to get worse if things don't change, right?

SOMMER: Yeah. And, you know, that's what kind of undercuts all of these policy talks, right? The science is clearer than ever, and international scientists released a major climate assessment this year. They found that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are the highest they've been in the last 2 million years. And things are starting to accelerate. Temperatures are rising faster. Sea levels are rising faster.

And they really highlighted why that 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, you know, as Dan mentioned, is key. There will be extreme impacts either way, but warming beyond that sets the stage for much more extreme storms; you know, the flooding of many coastal cities and the loss of entire ecosystems like coral reefs.

SHAPIRO: OK. With that in mind, does the Biden agenda have any further chance of passing? I mean, Jeff, today, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he still plans to bring this Build Back Better act up for a vote next year. What are its prospects?

BRADY: Well, we don't know yet. But this - even the stripped-down version of that original legislation, it still includes a lot of climate elements, as you said, worth over a half trillion dollars. There are major tax incentives to boost clean energy and transportation and rebates to help people buy electric vehicles and shift to cleaner electricity at home.

I should also mention that there was a bipartisan infrastructure package that already passed. It included some climate elements - money for electric vehicle charging stations and to expand the power grid so it can carry more renewable energy. And the administration is also taking executive actions to reduce emissions. Just today, it raised mileage standards for new cars. And that's important because transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions right now.

SHAPIRO: If the elements in that Build Back Better proposal do not become law, Dan, what does that mean for the Biden administration's effort to present itself as a global leader on climate?

CHARLES: It does undermine the credibility of those U.S. claims. You know, at that climate summit, we watched former Secretary of State John Kerry, you know, try to persuade other countries like Russia and China to cut their greenhouse emissions more sharply. And the question came up even then. You know, how can you ask other countries to do things that you can't quite manage to do yourself?

SHAPIRO: You've all been describing reasons that scientists are alarmed and the prospects for policies to address those alarms. Can you leave us with any good news? Are there any bright spots when you look at what's happening on climate change?

BRADY: You know, I think it's important to step back for a minute and just acknowledge how much this country's climate change discussion has changed in the last year. A lot of what we talked about here just wasn't on the table with the last president. And while President Biden doesn't have the sweeping changes he wants yet, he has put climate change on the country's agenda.

SOMMER: And, you know, so many cities in the country know there's more extreme weather on the way. And with that infrastructure package at least, there are billions of dollars specifically for preparing for climate change. You know, that's things like improving water systems, the electric grid or just getting infrastructure ready for extreme weather. You know, a lot of states and cities are eager for those kinds of investments, and they want to get to work.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Lauren Sommer, Jeff Brady and Dan Charles, part of our climate team. Thank you all.

CHARLES: Thank you.

BRADY: Thank you.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.