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“Bipartisanship” Is Climate Poison

The last time Democrats controlled Washington, they blew their chance to address climate change. Will Joe Biden and Joe Manchin repeat the party’s mistakes?

Joe Manchin speaks in a bipartisan group announcing the proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill in December.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Joe Manchin speaks in a bipartisan group announcing the proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill in December.

Democrats are about to enjoy the most power they’ve had in years. A president has just been elected with a huge popular mandate. The House and Senate are both under Democratic control. The country is in the midst of a crisis as great as any since the Great Depression, and its economic future is far from certain. Public concern about the climate crisis is higher than ever.

But this isn’t 2021, when historic runoff wins by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff seem to have handed Democrats back control of the Senate.* It’s 2009, and it doesn’t end well.

Right now, Democrats are cautiously celebrating a historic win. There are still major barriers like the filibuster and moderate Democrats that will make passing any progressive policy an uphill battle. But it looks like Mitch McConnell’s reign in the Senate is over, even as members of his party storm the Capitol.  

It’s worth remembering what happened last time Democrats had trifecta control. In 2009, under Democratic leadership both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, Congress looked poised to pass some kind of climate policy. GOP nominee John McCain had even campaigned on it in the primary. A smattering of Republicans had started to put bipartisan bills forward, and Obama was eager to have something to take to the big U.N. climate talks happening in Copenhagen that winter. But the bipartisan compromise measure they settled on failed. And the corporate-funded backlash to it boosted a Tea Party insurgency that helped Republicans take back the House in the 2010 midterms—and, eventually, the Senate and White House by 2016. 

Given the constraints on big climate policy—including moderates like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—big green groups and Democrats in 2009 bet that wooing big business would be the key to garnering support from more conservative colleagues. A coalition called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP, brought together the likes of Duke Energy and Shell with the Environmental Defense Fund and Lehman Brothers, among other Fortune 500 companies. Their chosen policy was cap-and-trade, a kind of carbon pricing. The bill, Waxman-Markey, was broader than that—including clean energy investments more than double what had ended up passing through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—but the big upshot was a cap on carbon and set number of credits pegged to levels of emissions permitted. If one company polluted less than the amount of credits they had been allocated, they could sell those to companies that exceeded the cap. The bill was friendly to big business, its advocates said, because it gave them the flexibility to bring down emissions on their own terms over time.

To the public, however, the Waxman-Markey bill was virtually incomprehensible. Messaging focused on vague ideas about climate action being good for society. But the country was also in the midst of a painful recession, with unemployment rates climbing. The average voter couldn’t explain what cap-and-trade was, much less how it would make their lives better. As political sociologist Theda Skocpol explained in her extensive postmortem on Waxman-Markey, “It is not clear that the climate change ad writers ever tried to spell out concrete benefits that new legislation could bring to ordinary families.”

This was, in fact, the whole strategy behind the bill: to win over elites, not the public. As long as Republicans and CEOs were happy, the thinking went—sated by generous credit allowances and regulatory rollbacks—it would pass.

But as political scientist Jacob Grumbach has documented, the polluters who signed on to USCAP were simultaneously funding efforts to kill the bill, through membership in combative trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute and Chamber of Commerce. For them, it was a win-win. By joining the coalition that was writing climate policy, they could work to make sure whatever did pass would be as lenient as possible. Meanwhile, they could fund the opposition so that nothing passed at all. The upshot was business as usual.

Some of the most influential opposition came from the Koch brothers’ fossil fuel empire, which spent big through its organizing arm—Americans for Prosperity—to whip up Tea Party anger being aimed largely at the country’s first Black president. With strategic injections of cash, the Kochs focused middle-class white ire on the wonky topic of carbon pricing. Protesters showed up to usually sleepy town halls of so-called “RINOS,” or Republicans In Name Only. They backed Tea Party challengers to candidates who’d said anything remotely positive about the idea of climate action. With virtually unlimited funds at their disposal, corporate lobbying arms opposing Waxman-Markey painted it as an undue burden on middle-class households that would kill jobs and usher in the kinds of sky-high gas prices that had been in place just a few years prior. These misleading charges stuck, in large part because no one had made a proactive case to the public about how carbon pricing would benefit them. Cap-and-trade managed to pass the House. It was never taken up in the Senate after its most high profile supporters bailed.

The Tea Party won big. About half of its insurgents were elected, and the GOP picked up a total of 84 seats and the House with it—their biggest midterm gains since 1938. Climate policy, deemed toxic, was effectively off the table for a full decade.

The current moment isn’t identical to 2009. Joe Biden ran on a promise to Build Back Better and—under pressure—melded his jobs program and climate program, linking lowering emissions with economic prosperity in a way Democrats conspicuously failed to in 2009. He’s appointed cabinet-level posts intended specifically to deal with climate change. Still, there’s not much suggestion he’s wavered from what may well be his only abiding political commitment: bipartisan compromise. “I think the nation’s looking for us to be united, much more united,” he told Stephen Colbert recently. “But look, I think I can work with Republican leadership in the House and the Senate. I think we can get things done.” Needless to say, the GOP doesn’t seem poised to compromise. In Congress, even with what now looks like double Democratic wins in Georgia’s Senate runoffs, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s outsized swing vote could be treated as an excuse for moderation. Manchin himself urged bipartisanship Wednesday as vote counting continued in Georgia, hours before right-wing rioters breached the Capitol.

In their closing arguments on the campaign trail, though, Warnock and Ossoff voiced as good a model as any for climate policy: give people stuff. After Mitch McConnell blocked the possibility of $2,000 checks, they promised voters that a Democratically controlled Senate would deliver. They won, batting off racist and anti-Semitic attacks painting both candidates as “radical liberals.” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer now says he intends to make those checks happen.

Climate legislation should operate by a similar ethos. Rather than making devil’s bargains with industry and Republicans, it can offer tangible gains through jobs and investments—all in time to keep the GOP and its fossil fuel backers from retaking the House in 2022. Biden should sign the $2,000 checks Democrats send out and slap a federal government plaque on every new infrastructure project Congress greenlights. The message shouldn’t be that a corporate executive in a suit endorses a thousand-page bill nobody can understand. It should be that big government is back and it’ll give you a job.

Likewise, instead of watering down climate policy for Manchin’s benefit, a climate package could deliver concrete gains to West Virginia—a good in and of itself. Manchin’s state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country and is sorely in need of the sorts of federal investment that previous West Virginian Democratic senators were known for shaking down. A climate bill could be Manchin’s chance to deliver, promising better, less dangerous jobs to replace the old coal ones that will never return, climate policy or no. And such a jobs-forward bill could also give Manchin incentive to support repealing the filibuster, which otherwise threatens keep good policy off the table.

The amount of power Manchin is about to wield over the Senate may be wildly undemocratic. But climate policy should look out for the coal mining communities that helped build this country. Democrats should make the case that it can.

*This piece has been updated to reflect multiple outlets declaring Jon Ossoff the winner of his Senate runoff race.