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Joe Manchin blocked climate spending so the national debt won’t crush his grandkids. His legacy risks handing them much bigger problems.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • Manchin has expressed concern about future generations having to pay down the national debt.
  • But he risks handing them bigger problems by blocking climate spending in Congress.
  • “Your legacy is being written as the man who burned the earth,” one activist said.

Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin efficiently killed off part of Democrats’ agenda — a move he’s pulled before as one of the two key centrist votes upholding Democrats’ razor-thin majority.

This time, Democrats saw tax hikes on the wealthy and spending on climate measures slip away for the second time in less than a year. It’s fueling anger among activists pressing for aggressive action to confront the climate emergency.

“Senator Manchin, for close to two years now, has been wavering the fate of human survival and the safety of our communities over our heads, like a bone to starving dogs,” John Paul Mejia, the national spokesperson for climate activist group the Sunrise Movement, told Insider. “Frankly, the latest attempt to gut any climate spending from a once in a generation reconciliation bill is part of the same strategy that he’s always been playing with.” 

Manchin’s resistance has a lot to do with high inflation numbers, something he’s been particularly focused on as negotiations drag on. He’s now “cautious” about any potential spending that could drive prices higher. Instead, he wants to focus on slashing the cost of prescription drugs and renewing an expiring financial assistance program under the Affordable Care Act.

Another one of Manchin’s chief priorities is shrinking the national debt. It’s not a new position for him, and he has long warned against imposing a huge economic burden on future generations.

“Adding trillions of dollars more to nearly $29 trillion of national debt, without any consideration of the negative effects on our children and grandchildren, is one of those decisions that has become far too easy in Washington,” Manchin said in a statement last summer.

But scientists warn that not acting on climate change could bring far more dire consequences to future generations. “What I would ask him is how could you look at your grandchildren in the eye without feeling any disgust for yourself, your moral bankruptcy, and your decisions,” Meija said.

The consequences of a warming climate are growing more apparent. Swaths of Europe and the United States are experiencing heatwaves. In France, Portugal and Spain, record-breaking temperatures are triggering destructive wildfires prompting thousands of people to flee their homes.

“Climate change is no longer a chart or a graph happening in some far off future. It’s the smoke in our lungs, it’s the heat waves happening now in communities across America and our globe,” Jamal Raad, the co-founder and executive director of Evergreen Action, told Insider.

“The fact that Congress has failed to act and Senator Manchin almost singularly torpedoed our last best shot at climate investments is disastrous, and it will be his legacy,” Raad continued.

America is more worried about the economy than the climate

Manchin’s sentiments do align with how Americans are feeling.

In January 2022, Pew Research Center asked 5,128 American adults about their top concerns for the year. A whopping 71% — the highest percentage for one cause — said strengthening the economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress, with 61% saying that reducing health care costs should be a top priority. 

Meanwhile, just 42% said climate change. In 2021, Gen Zers surveyed by Deloitte said that climate change was their top concern. In 2022, that shifted to cost of living — followed by climate change.

But Isaac Vergun, 20, said that “we really cannot afford any sort of inaction” right now. Vergun has been a climate activist since he was 13, and is a plaintiff in Juliana v. US, a 2015 lawsuit brought by 21 kids — who were ages 8 to 19 – claiming that the government violated their constitutional rights through exacerbating the climate crisis.

If you asked Vergun five years ago how pulling back spending on climate would impact his future, “I would’ve been a little disappointed, but I would’ve been a little optimistic and seen the silver lining that we still got quite a few years until some serious catastrophic irreversible climate changes started.”

Now, though, “we are currently living through the climate crisis — and just the tip of the iceberg of it.”

Cost of living is a big issue, but the climate crisis will make it worse

While Manchin is focusing on a right-now economic issue, the climate crisis has already taken an economic toll — and that will only get worse. 

NOAA estimates that weather and climate disasters have cost the country over $2.275 trillion since 1980. In 2022 alone, there’s been nine disaster events — higher than the average year — that cost over $1 billion, and took 8 lives.

“The climate crisis will bring forward immense economic and human repercussions to this country, and those who are stalling in action on this will be to blame,” Meija said. For instance, persistently high gas prices, a symptom of Americans’ dependence on climate-busting fossil fuels, are driving inflation, and taking a big chunk out of workers’ wallets.

“The solution to this should be not to have an economy dependent on the whims of fossil fuels anymore, which are incredibly volatile resources that aren’t good for our planet, and aren’t good for the pockets of regular working class people,” Meija said.

President Joe Biden, who’s already seen Manchin shelve his agenda once, seemed to give in to the ultimatum. In a statement on Friday, Biden said Congress should move forward on the prescription drugs legislation before the August recess.

“Let me be clear: if the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” Biden said.

It seems like Manchin has won again.

“Your legacy is being written as the man who burned the earth,” Meija said.

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