Miles BenningtonOperations Director, Chamber UK
Last week the UK was focussed on the bizarre process of choosing a new Prime Minister. There is not doubt that the new occupant of Number 10 will be big news and the choice will influence the course of people’s lives for years to come. At the same time though and much less remarked upon this side of the pond, a different Prime Minister was making a decision that we will all have to live with for decades.
Joe Machin: US Prime Minister
In 2020 and early 2021, Americans elected first a Democratic President, then a Democratic House of Representatives, then a Democratic Senate. The Democrats control all branches of government and according to their pronouncements and manifestos they want to start taking climate changes seriously.
The fly in the ointment was that in the Senate they had the barest majority possible. All Democrats and those who caucus with Democrats amounted to 50, and all Republicans amount to 50. Only the Vice President’s vote was available to break a tie.
Given the utter polarisation of American politics on most consequential issues this means that to get anything useful done the Democrats need total unity. If they lose one vote, they lose everything. US politics is further institutionally conservative because with a few exceptions, Bills in the Senate have to be passed with a supermajority of 60 to avoid a “filibuster”. The act of filibustering is one of the quirks of US politics. It used to involve US senators speaking for hours on end and refusing to yield the floor in order to prevent controversial Bills coming to a vote (think, Mr Smith goes to Washington).
This mechanism has evolved into a veto on any legislation that a sizeable minority doesn’t like, which, under the obstructionist ultra cynical “leadership” of Mitch McConnell is basically everything.
In this unenviable situation, the Democrats are only as strong as their weakest link and that link, more often than not is Joe Manchin.
Joe Manchin is a strange sort of Democrat. Representing West Virginia, a state that voted for Trump by a margin of 68% to 30% in 2020, he has to be mindful that his party is just not popular enough to get him elected. He needs to be an authentic voice of his state to remain in office as a Democrat and to do that he needs to represent for coal.
Like in some areas of northern England and Wales in the 1980’s, coal is big business in West Virginia and has deep cultural roots. At the centre of many communities is a history of mining and the industries that have grown up around it. So, Joe Manchin needs to keep the interests of coal mining communities at the front of his mind when making decisions if he wishes to remain in office.
That is perhaps especially easy for him as he has made millions from coal himself. In 1988 he founded a coal brokerage and since then his family has been invested and active in coal and fossil fuel extraction. As is par for the course in much of US politics, he also takes sizable donations from fossil fuel companies.
A stable climate
So, why the US civics lesson? Don’t we have our own politics to be getting on with? Yes, but last week Joe Manchin, dubbed the Prime Minister of America vetoed Democrat hopes to get basically any action on Climate Change through Congress in this term. Judging by the opinion polls, this may well be the last chance to get anything on climate change through congress until a new Democratic president comes to power, potentially a political cycle and a half away.
No change on climate is no longer a conservative position on climate change. It is downright radical. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) has stated that the world needs to halve carbon equivalent emissions by 2030 or face catastrophic global warming. The world’s second largest emitter taking a break from decarbonisation is everyone’s business.
Lessons for the world
Joe Manchin is a pretty odious character. Willing to see the world burn for his own narrow electoral and financial interests. He is however a harbinger of things to come. Powerful people do not give up their power willingly and we should not be surprised if people, perhaps coal miners especially, are unwilling to give up their livelihoods on the promise that the climate will remain stable.
If we are to decarbonise our economies there will be losers and every country is going to need a strategy for defanging them and making sure that people are neither able to block progress, nor thrown on the economic scrapheap.
Next, if we are to decarbonise the world, there need to be mechanisms in place to ensure that free riders cannot piggyback on or sabotage the hard work that will be required from all major economies. Just because the US cannot get things done, does not mean we can slow down but it does represent a threat to the environment the rest of us have to live in.
Lessons for the UK
Decarbonising the UK will be painful but though necessary it is nowhere near sufficient to protecting our climate. This is a global problem, and the UK needs a strategy to effecting the entire planet to ensure that decarbonisation happens. As is often pointed out, usually by those living near a proposed windfarm, it’s no good the UK suffering if it doesn’t fix the problem.
A more global UK strategy for decarbonisation would rest on three planks. Research, procurement, and diplomacy.
The easiest, most comfortable way to decarbonise our economies as Bill Gates has set out would be to reduce the price of low, or zero carbon technologies so they outcompete high emission products in the market. Researching new technologies that could make this happen is therefore essential to securing a future for our planet.
Once a technology is invented however, there is no guarantee that it will ever be scaled to the point at which it is competitive with current technologies. Electric cars have been around about as long as cars powered by fossil fuels. History in this case favoured petrol powered cars and now there are entire industries devoted to making the best, most efficient and cheapest petrol cars imaginable. It has taken years for electric cars to build the scale to be even remotely competitive. For other alternative technologies we have run out of time for them to scale.
One way governments can speed this process is by using clever subsidies or their immense buying power to increase the scale of nascent industries quickly. The technologies that revolutionise the world won’t be the exciting cutting edge ones, they will be the ones that become cheap and accessible enough to be useful as solar and wind power are now proving. The electrolysis of hydrogen from water, various forms of energy storage, low carbon concrete, zero carbon steel and even electric aviation are all technologies that are maturing and were Britain to show the way, could be applied across the world.
Finally diplomacy. As COP26 has shown, decarbonisation by consensus means that the world moves at the speed of the slowest. America’s lack of credibility on climate issues did not encourage China or India to commit to big cuts in emissions and understandably so. Why should industrialising countries forgo growth to save developed countries unwilling to lift a finger?
It is a rocky road but it may be time to contemplate enforcement mechanisms for those countries that flout climate treaties. So far at least, that category has included most world governments as talk is cheap, but as more countries begin to fall on the right side of history it can’t be right that our efforts are derailed by those, like Joe Manchin who are too invested in the past to allow for a future.