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Environmentalists see hopes of U.S. climate action slipping away

"It’s like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' We’re just reliving the same thing again and again and again," one envrionmentalist said.
Image: Joe Manchin
Joe Manchin during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, on April 26. Greg Nash / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Environmentalists are seething yet again.

As news broke late Thursday that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would not support climate provisions as part of the Democrats' sweeping economic package, climate activists didn't hold back on voicing their ire.

"Senator Manchin has condemned his own grandchildren to a broken planet," Leah Stokes, an associate professor of environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in an email to NBC News. "His actions will be recorded in the fossil record for centuries to come."

Manchin's decision to block climate legislation that had already been pared back from its original ambition was just the latest blow to the Biden administration's climate agenda. Two weeks earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate some of the EPA's powers to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act.

These mounting setbacks at the highest levels of government prompted environmentalists — a group all too accustomed to sluggish and insufficient action — to air their frustration over failures to address what it considers the most pressing crisis facing humanity.

"I'm pissed off," said Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for climate solutions. "It's like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' We're just reliving the same thing again and again and again."

Manchin said Friday that he has not closed the door on negotiations, telling West Virginia's MetroNews that he wants to weigh July inflation data before making a final decision.

Chris Walton, public policy director for the Hip Hop Caucus, a grassroots nonpartisan group that works to engage young voters on issues of justice and equity, criticized Manchin for dragging his feet.

"What do we keep waiting on?" he said. "Our house is on fire. Why are we arguing about whether it's really on fire or just a little on fire?"

Walton said he felt every emotion from anger to sadness over the recent developments, adding that it's particularly disheartening because the consequences of climate change are already affecting all corners of the country, regardless of people's political beliefs.

 "If we can't breathe, you can't breathe either," Walton said. "If we don't fix this, none of us will have good water to drink, none of us will have a place to live."

With the upcoming midterm elections this fall, and the prospect of a shuffling in the makeup and control of the House and Senate, some saw the economic package as the best chance for Democrats to pass legislation to tackle the climate crisis and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, Manchin derailed those ambitions, jeopardizing Biden's goal to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030, said Stokes, who has advised Democrats in Congress on crafting climate policy.

She criticized Manchin for receiving more campaign money from the fossil fuel industry in the past year than any other member of Congress and blasted the senator for "stringing along" his Democratic colleagues.

"He does not care about the American people or the planet his grandchildren will grow up on," Stokes said.

Jamal Raad, executive director of the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, said Manchin "betrayed" the American public.

"The failure of this reconciliation bill is not about Congressional power or politics, it’s about the real lives of millions of Americans that will be harmed or lost by the irrevocable damage from the climate crisis," Raad said in a statement.

But while blistering in their assessments of the current political situation, climate activists said the setback was no reason to give up.

Foley described his disappointment in seeing yet another major climate bill fail to pass but said the government still has ways to enact meaningful policy to fight global warming.

"I would love to see Biden go through the existing federal budget and look for opportunities to direct funding to climate work now, in smaller chunks with existing money," he said.

Such efforts could include demanding that every vehicle purchased by the federal government be an electric vehicle, Foley said, or earmarking part of the Department of Energy's budget for climate mitigation projects.

For the Hip Hop Caucus, the focus will be on applying pressure at all levels of government, from local officials to state lawmakers to members of Congress, Walton said.

And if those elected officials fail to act, Walton said voters should feel empowered to replace them with ones who will.

"We need to take it to the ballot box," he said, "and take it to the streets."