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A People’s History of Climate Change from 1979 to the Present, or, The Manchin Effect
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(John Maxwell Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent who has covered the environment, is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University, and a Global Fellow in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — Our planet is caught in a clash between long-term and short-term self-interest. Until a week ago I would have called the latter the Manchin Effect.
Evidence of increased global warming is lighting up the globe like a pinball machine. In the past few weeks, we have seen record-breaking heat waves in Japan, Italy, Norway, Finland, and Iran. It was so hot in Britain that airport runways buckled; roads closed due to melting asphalt. Wildfires burst out all over Europe, as well as in the United States.
Yet in early July, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) torpedoed a measure in Congress that provided financial incentives to increase the production of solar and wind energy.
Because the Democrats control the senate by only a tiny margin, the legislation could not pass without Manchin’s vote. He declined to give it for the spending bill, he said, while inflation was soaring. But his record was consistently unfriendly to climate even when inflation was low.
The logic of rising temperatures calls for immediate action. But Manchin was elected by voters of a coal producing-state, and the mines in West Virginia have made him rich.
Then came a fantastic turn of events. Last week, Manchin changed his mind. He worked with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to fashion a bill that would provide $369 billion for renewable energy and electric vehicles.
It was a moment to savor and not one for celebration. This would be historic legislation on climate — if it passes. There is still one Democrat who is holding back, Sen. Kryrsen Sinema. And the Republicans may devise a maneuver to derail the bill.
We can only guess what nay-saying legislators think the world will look like for their grandchildren. But as Eugene Linden points out in his new book on the history of government policy toward climate warming, Fire and Flood (Penguin Random House. 2022), the rationale for not prioritizing measures to mitigate warming generally comes down to the view that climate change isn’t really all that bad — and may constitute a giant hoax — and, anyway, mankind always figures out a solution.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Linden argues the first credible evidence of global warming came in 1979. The occasion was the release of a report called The Carbon Dioxide Problem by a panel appointed by President Jimmy Carter, who installed solar panels on the White House roof.
In the meantime, two things happened. First, evidence has mounted that warming is not only a fact but also is increasing faster than people initially predicted. Second, a variety of forces have stood in the way of action.
One of the delaying forces has been science itself. Scientists initially had difficulty measuring this unprecedented crisis because they had so little good data on which to base projections. “Reasonably reliable measurement of global sea levels only became possible in 1993 with the advent of satellite data,” Linden writes. The careful analysis that was undertaken took years to test and perfect.
The care that scientists exercised worked against their arguments in another way. When they occasionally adjusted numbers, sometimes slightly downwards, opponents said it was evidence for lack of certainty that anything was wrong.
Big business has resisted change, Linton argues, by “questioning science and derailing regulation of atmospheric pollutants,” rather than by developing new climate-friendly technologies. At the same time, Republican administrations eliminated tax incentives and disincentives that discouraged pollution.
Unfortunately, Linton does not delve deeply into how business polluted thinking on climate change. He is, however, highly enlightening on the actions of the insurance industry.
One might expect insurance companies to press for measures to arrest climate warming as they did for mandatory seat belts. But for years after 1979 the retail end of insurance remained largely focused on the traditional idea of selling policies and letting reinsurance companies spread out the risk.
This has begun to change as catastrophes have mounted. Insurance companies have fled from regions that are at high risk to climate-related catastrophes.
Florida, the flattest state in the union, is exceptionally vulnerable to rising seas and hurricanes. Scores of insurance companies stopped doing business there following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. But this has not led Floridians to press for climate legislation or to relocate to safer ground. On the contrary, the number of Floridians has grown by five million since Andrew.
This is because federal and state governments have come to the rescue with subsidized insurance packages. The Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, created by the Florida legislature, is the largest insurer in the state.
One might think that this would be troubling to red state citizens who vote largely against big government involvement in their lives. But immediate self-interest prevailed.
Not only Republicans are subject to this. Al Gore, who made a name for himself as a climate worrier, ignored the issue in his race for the White House, lest it lose votes. John Kerry, who is a point person for President Joe Biden’s administration on climate, behaved similarly when he was a candidate for president.
And sometimes, to be fair, climate has had to give way to other altruist goals. Biden, for example, has had to backtrack on curbing fossil fuels in order to hold together the coalition partners supporting the Ukrainians.
Linton is a long-time journalist for Time magazine and climate policy consultant. His book has a memoir quality as a result of his occasionally annoying habit of quoting long passages from stories and studies he wrote over his career.
Linden looks for good news and finds some. Wind-generated electricity is growing faster than predicted. Automobile manufacturers are making electric vehicles. Polls show that the great majority of the public is now alarmed about global warming.
Linden’s chief solution is to adopt democratic socialism such as is found in European countries that favor state-supported interventions to ensure public safety. The word “socialism,” however, is not likely to put his policy preferences over the top.
What is required is courageous leaders who do not want to be remembered for the Manchin Effect and address what is happening right before their eyes.