Joe Biden heads to Glasgow in the coming days for a crucial climate summit at which he hopes to cajole international partners into era-defining commitments to reduce carbon emissions. But two senators could undermine his green credentials at the worst possible time.
In a Senate balanced on a knife’s edge between Democrats and Republicans, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have found their moment.
They may share the moderate lane of the party, the centre ground of US politics, but beyond that the two could hardly be more different.
The rugged 74-year-old man from the mountains of West Virginia and the 45-year-old iconoclastic woman from the deserts of Arizona.
One enjoys extended chats with political reporters and hosts parties for fellow senators on his houseboat. The other barely speaks to the press and flies back to her home state at the slightest opportunity.But for all their differences, they are united in opposing parts of Joe Biden’s ambitious climate programme – with its ultimate goal of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels.
And now it’s a race to strike an agreement on a spending bill that allays their concerns without diluting the US president’s green agenda before he arrives in Glasgow on Sunday.
What the COP26 climate summit could mean for us all
So what is driving their thinking?
The man from the mountains
On Sunday morning in Wilmington, Delaware, the president of the United States, the majority leader of the US Senate and the senator from West Virginia sat down for breakfast.
Manchin, hailing from a rural state with only 1.8 million people and a fraction of a percent of the total US gross domestic product, was the one calling the shots.
Because of a legislative procedure, Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership hope to use to pass their upcoming spending package with a simple majority, Manchin’s support could be the difference between success and failure.
The West Virginian had already effectively scuttled what was the centrepiece of Biden’s legislative climate agenda, a $150bn programme that would have rewarded energy producers that switched to renewable sources of power and fined those that continued to rely on fossil fuels. Now he is reportedly targeting a fee on the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
He has said he is more amenable to investments in renewable resources as long as they are accompanied by research to make fossil fuel cleaner and don’t endanger existing subsidies for the energy industry.
Is Trump’s power over Republicans starting to slip?
Part of Manchin’s concern with Biden’s social-spending and climate agenda is ideological. Manchin is a centrist in a party that is trending more to the left. He’s a throwback to a time when his state was controlled by Democrats, but last year Republican Donald Trump won West Virginia by 39 percentage points. Manchin is now the lone Democratic holdout in West Virginia politics and, if he were to choose not to run for re-election in 2024, his seat would almost certainly flip to the Republicans.
Another component of Manchin’s view, on climate in particular, is practical.
He is one of the two senators – the other a Republican – from a state whose economy is dominated by the coal industry. In 2019, the most recent year for which there are figures, coal contributed $9.1bn to the West Virginian economy and accounted for about 27,000 jobs. Manchin’s energy investments personally provided him with almost half a million dollars in income in 2020. Energy companies gave more to Manchin’s political campaigns than any other senator’s.