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Opinion How to talk to your grandchildren about Joe Manchin and the climate

Not everyone was resigned to things being this way. (David Mcnew/Getty Images)

It is another Air Quality Day today, and your grandchildren can’t go outside.

Tell them to sip their water ration slowly and savor it while you explain the rest. They may wonder about when they can next go outdoors without having to be extremely careful of the new temperatures; be honest in explaining that you don’t know! It may not cheer them up to hear that you used to be able to go outdoors all the time. Weigh your words accordingly.

But you can tell them that the fire moat surrounding the house has not always been there, because wildfires were not always so rampant. Tell them about how cold it used to get, so cold that there would still be ice on the Arctic Ocean in the summer! Tell them that fish used to be a verb as well as just a noun, before the oceans became so acidic. Tell them about polar bears, maybe.

If they ask why things aren’t like that any more, be as open as you’d like to be. If you made efforts to avert this outcome, say so! If you organized and petitioned and marched and even gave up your individual plastic straw, although that didn’t feel exactly related, mention it.

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This is always a depressing conversation, but it may help to explain to them that people saw this coming and had a plan to stop it, a plan that could even have become law. Not everyone was resigned to things being this way.

If they ask whose fault it is, you do not have to blame any one person in particular. You can honestly say that this was the accumulation of many decisions over time. This is certainly true.

If you want to, though, you can tell them about one specific time.

Explain how in 2021 lots of people, including the president, agreed that it was a good idea to do something to encourage people to switch to sustainable forms of energy to prevent catastrophic warming. It could have helped us cut carbon emissions by a large enough amount to prevent the global temperature from rising 1.5 degrees. This was pivotal!

Then, if they are old enough, you can tell them about Joe Manchin.

Explain that there was a man named Joe once who had a boat. He thought life on boats was easy and pleasant. Maybe he thought that if the sea level went up, that just increased the number of places you could go in your boat. Explain that he was what was called a senator, which was one of a group of 100 elected people who barely passed legislation, sometimes, because thanks to the filibuster (which Joe loved very much), you had to use a complicated process called reconciliation to make any legislation.

If they object that this doesn’t make sense, you can agree. Give them as much time as they need to process this. If they say, “Why did Joe want us to live like this?” you can keep going.

Explain that came from a place called West Virginia where many business folks treasured a substance called coal and another substance called natural gas. He received many donations from companies whose purpose it was to extricate fossil fuels from the earth, and we cannot be sure that this influenced his thinking, but we cannot be sure that it didn’t, either. He said there was no point paying energy companies to do things they were already doing, something I guess he imagined was happening.

Because of this, Joe said he would not support the big bill with the climate plan in it … so it got taken out! People wrote about it at the time in what, in retrospect, feels an unnecessarily jolly way – “Climate 0, Joe Manchin 1," as though this was a fun baseball game or a horse race. (You will have to explain what horse racing was.)

If the children say, “So, because one man with a boat from West Virginia in the year 2021 decided that it was more important not to bother the fossil fuel industry than it was to do what was necessary to prevent the earth from getting 1.5 degrees warmer, we are stuck living like this?” say, “No. All of the Republicans also helped.”

This may depress them. But remind them never to doubt that one person, with a few large gifts from the fossil fuel industry and a deep love for something called the filibuster, can absolutely change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has! Just never for the better.