By Oliver Milman
|First of all – apologies for the delay to this week’s newsletter. You can blame Joe Manchin for that.|
The disintegration of President Biden’s climate agenda was playing out almost perfectly in sync with new, graphic reminders of why such an agenda is necessary, with extreme heat and wildfires scorching the US, UK, France, Spain and several other countries.
Biden had vowed he “won’t back down” in tackling the climate crisis, even though in the past month the conservative-leaning US supreme court restricted his administration’s options to do so and a sweeping renewable energy bill appeared to suffer a protracted, inglorious death in Congress.
Then, suddenly, unexpected hope. On Wednesday night Manchin, the West Virginia senator who also happens to own a coal trading company, decided, after all, he was going to support a $369bn package to boost renewable energy rollout, proliferate electric vehicles and aid the direct victims of fossil fuel pollution.
The U-turn by Manchin, a crucial swing vote in an evenly divided US senate and until now a nemesis of Biden’s agenda, provoked both shock and jubilation. Al Gore said it could prove an “historic turning point”. The US, after decades of denial, delay and dysfunction, may finally have policies in place to deal with the climate crisis, giving the world a chance to avoid truly disastrous heatwaves, droughts, floods and other climate impacts.
There are major caveats. Manchin is in favour of expanded oil and gas drilling, citing fears over inflation, and so new leases on public land will be pushed by the bill, giving it a rather contradictory status as a lifeline that also locks in fossil fuel production for decades to come.
But it at least provides a glimmer of hope of addressing a crisis that is unfolding in real time. Temperatures have soared to 46C (115F) in parts of the US over the past week, placing about a third of the population under dangerous heat conditions. At least 20 people have died due to the heat, while so many livestock have died that farmers have resorted to shoving them into landfills.
Wildfires, now a year-round threat in the US west, have chewed up land with such ferocity the federal government has scrambled emergency interventions to save California’s sequoias, the largest trees on Earth, from burning. A fifth of these enormous trees, previously seen as virtually indestructible, have been lost to fire in just the past two years, with officials setting up a system of sprinklers in desperate bid to save Grizzly Giant, a fabled tree that dates back to the time of Jesus and stands more than 200ft tall.
Many climate activists want Biden to do more, urging him to declare a climate emergency that would unlock new presidential powers, as well as ban new oil and gas drilling on public lands. Even with the prospect of long-overdue legislation, these calls will only grow as the climate crisis takes a worsening toll on America.