Energy & Environment

McKibben says losing climate piece in federal budget package would be ‘devastating’

Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben speaks in Burlington on Sept. 24. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As weighty climate legislation within the $3.5 trillion domestic budget bill wobbles before federal lawmakers, renowned environmental activist and Vermonter Bill McKibben is speaking out to support it. 

In recent days, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has opposed a clean electricity program that would offer incentives for utility companies to use renewable energy and penalize companies that continue to use fossil fuels. If passed, the program would be one of the most substantial climate policies in U.S. history. 

This week, a spokesperson in Manchin’s office told The New York Times that the senator “has clearly expressed his concerns about using taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing.”

The legislation wouldn’t pass without votes from all 50 Democratic U.S. senators, so Manchin’s disapproval could seal the program’s fate.

McKibben, who most recently wrote a regular column for the New Yorker and recently launched a new organization to rally older Americans around climate action, published a blog post on Saturday, decrying reports about opposition to the climate legislation. Losing it would be “devastating,” he wrote. 

“If [Manchin] gets his way, it will gut the heart of that climate program,” McKibben told VTDigger. “It won’t stop the transition to renewable energy; it will just slow it way down. Climate change is unlike other public policy problems that we face, in that it’s a time test. If you don’t get it right, fast, then you never get it right, because you go past these tipping points.”

The $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program is one of several pieces of climate legislation in two bills currently working their way through Congress. Observers say it has the biggest impact among the bunch — and appears to be the only one to receive Manchin’s public disapproval. 

Members of the Vermont Climate Council are now crafting a climate action plan for the state, and similar statewide legislation may become more important for meeting climate targets if federal officials can’t pass legislation, McKibben said. 

“But I mean, they’re sort of linked because the states need some money to work with from Washington,” McKibben said. “A fair amount of stuff in that Build Back Better plan is about helping states and localities do things like building, electrification and weatherization.”

Aside from the urgency of the climate crisis, McKibben said, timing is a factor for several reasons: Democrats could lose Congress during midterms next fall, and U.S. President Joe Biden is preparing to participate in a United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November. The United States has historically emitted more than any other country in the world, although it’s now been overtaken by China.

“If the U.S. just shows up empty-handed,” he said, “it’s going to be hard as heck to persuade anybody else to play along.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to state that China has overtaken the United States as the top emitter of greenhouse gases.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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