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Opinion Even at COP26, Democrats struggle to overcome Manchin’s stalling on climate

Climate activists with the group ShutDown DC hold signs as they protest near Sen. Joe Manchin III’s houseboat in D.C. on Oct. 18. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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Last week, what with governors’ elections, Jan. 6 prosecutions and finagling over the Democrats’ Build Back Better agenda in Washington, one could almost forget that a major U.N. climate conference — the “last best hope” for the world to pull itself together and avoid catastrophic climate change — was happening across the Atlantic, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Still, the conference — known as COP26 — was never too far out of mind, in large part because of the flood of video and photographs it produced: protesters protesting, global leaders hobnobbing, Leonardo DiCaprio just … present, I suppose, and oddball environmentalist Prince Charles finally getting his due.

Perhaps one of the most eye-catching images featured President Biden, appearing to fall asleep during other world leaders’ speeches on Monday. Not that anyone can blame the man. Who among us, after a transatlantic flight, a bevy of conference events and multiple, doubtless pro forma speeches, wouldn’t be tempted to rest one’s eyes? (And besides, the entire world now knows that it was Britain’s Boris Johnson — maskless, rumpled, unserious — who was really asleep.)

The snoozy snapshots might have been amusing, but they also seemed symbolic of the approach much of the United States’ leadership has taken to climate issues: eyes closed.

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By the end of the week, Biden was pushed out of the climate-related spotlight by images of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — taken not at the conference, but in Washington — pushing young climate protesters aside with his silver Maserati, on his way out of his yacht club’s garage.

Biden, despite having been caught slipping, does actually seem to care about climate. Hours after being sworn in as president, he announced that the United States would rejoin the Paris climate accord — an agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally below 1.5 — reversing his predecessor’s abrupt withdrawal. And Biden’s Build Back Better plan contains a historic $555 billion in climate change mitigation investments, even if the overall infrastructure package has shrunk significantly in size due to congressional objections to the multi-trillion-dollar price tag.

And Manchin? Does he care? Absolutely not. In fact, Manchin has almost single-handedly been holding up passage of Build Back Better, with particular animus toward the bill’s clean energy measures. (Manchin is the top Senate recipient of campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry this election cycle and has personal financial stakes in fossil fuel companies.) It was reportedly for fear of alienating Manchin that the United States declined to join the COP26 pledge to phase out coal.

Here’s the problem for Democrats: The public cares very much about climate change, especially the younger voters who are the future of the party.

The protesters who blocked Manchin’s luxury vehicle were part of the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group focused on climate change and other progressive causes. Five of their number had just ended a hunger strike for climate justice. One, a 24-year-old whose strike ended after doctors told him he was at risk of cardiac arrest, held a sign on the strike’s first day that read: “Hunger striking for my future children.”

That was a comparatively optimistic pronouncement, considering the growing number of young people who are deciding not to have children at all due to fears of climate crisis. One survey found that at least a third of American adults under age 45 expected to either not have kids or to have fewer due to climate change. And a poll last year showed that 1 in 4 childless adults cited climate change as one reason they hadn’t reproduced.

At this point, 60 percent of American adults say climate change is very or extremely important for the federal government to address, according to recent polling by Monmouth University; the same percentage told the Pew Research Center that they were worried about the personal impacts of climate change. In another Pew survey, 67 percent of Gen Z respondents and 71 percent of millennial respondents said climate should be a top priority.

The issue, much like the planet, is only getting hotter.

Which brings us back to the images from COP26 and what they really say. My takeaway? Biden needs to wake up and get his party in hand. It’s Manchin, not the protesters, who must get out of the way.

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