The Green Transition Depends on Taking ‘Coal Country’ Seriously

The Green Transition Depends on Taking ‘Coal Country’ Seriously
A climate change demonstrator mocks Sen. Joe Manchin, who has blocked President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 20, 2021 (AP photo by J. Scott Applewhite).

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is not well-loved among Democrats in Washington these days, but for champions of a greener world economy, he is someone who needs to be understood. In fact, for anyone looking to forecast the outcomes of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, all you need to do is track Manchin’s moves and those of his political counterparts in the world’s top coal-producing democracies to understand the new politics of the green transition and energy nationalism. 

At the moment, Manchin, a Democrat who represents the coal-producing state of West Virginia, is the main obstacle to a grinding push by progressive Democrats and President Joe Biden to pass a $150 billion clean electricity package as part of Biden’s long-stalled $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill. Manchin is especially opposed to a part of the bill that offers financial incentives for electricity providers to shift to renewables as their energy source and imposes penalties that amount to a carbon tax on those that rely on fossil fuels. He is also unhappy with language in the bill that would limit investments in carbon capture technologies. Manchin is just one politician, but because of the arcane rules of the U.S. Senate, if Biden is unable to build a bridge between him and the progressive wing of the party on climate change policy, the president will head to Scotland empty handed. 

Biden, however, will probably not be alone in that regard. Besides the U.S., which ranks as the world’s third-largest coal producer, India, Indonesia and Australia all have their own Joe Manchins. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, said last month he was going to skip the Glasgow summit, known as COP26, altogether, and he only reversed course after facing a public backlash. Ambitious progressives and climate change activists looking for creative workarounds to the obstructionism of fossil fuel-loving incumbent politicians would do well to study them all. The Glasgow summit’s outcomes may ultimately be disappointing for progressives, but carefully observing which kinds of pressure campaigns work to overcome resistance by politicians from fossil fuel-rich regions offers a chance to adjust political strategies ahead of COP27 in Egypt in 2022. 

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