Joe Biden was sent to Washington exactly 50 years ago on a Senate campaign on opposition to the war in Vietnam, support for civil rights, increased funding for mass transit and an overhaul of the income-tax system. He may leave politics with his greatest legacy being penalties assessed to companies for operating leaking oil and gas wells, tax credits for solar panels and wind turbines, incentives for Americans to buy electric vehicles and consumer subventions for high-efficiency heat pumps – the elements of a landmark climate-control plan that could win congressional approval as soon as next week.
Mr. Biden has been struggling on Capitol Hill and in public-opinion polls. Leading members of his party privately hope he will not seek a second term. The Supreme Court and the Republican caucus in the Senate have frustrated him. But this week he, and perhaps his place in the stormy seas of history, may have been thrown a political lifebuoy from the most unlikely source: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of landlocked West Virginia, who has made millions from investments in coal and gas but who abruptly changed his position on the massive climate-change bill that Mr. Biden has regarded as one of his principal priorities as president.
As a result, the climate-change measure that earlier this week looked dead in the water now seems headed for Mr. Biden’s signature, rescuing a principal part of the President’s agenda and, many climate-change advocates believe, his historical profile as a reformer – part of his early identity, worn away by decades of compromise.
“This will be the first serious climate legislation the U.S. Congress has ever passed,” said Bill McKibben, who has been writing about climate change for nearly a third of a century and who is regarded as perhaps the leading voice on environmental issues in the country. “Biden ran to be a climate-change president and this is a step toward realizing that goal and sealing his legacy.”
Environmental achievement has been one way for American presidents to secure their legacy, as Ulysses S. Grant (who created the first national park, at Yellowstone), Theodore Roosevelt (who created five national parks), Franklin D. Roosevelt (who protected 93 million hectares of public land and created the Civilian Conservation Corps), George W. Bush (who signed brownfield legislation and promulgated a Healthy Forests initiative) and Barack Obama (who established 23 national monuments, the most ever by a president), among others, have found.
Approval of the current climate-change legislation would place Mr. Biden in the same pantheon of environmental heroes as the unlikely figure of Richard Nixon, who despite his dishonour growing out of the Watergate scandal, is remembered for signing the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and for creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Legacy of Parks program.
“This development is a great next step in dealing with climate change,” said David Hess, who was secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. “The fact that this would promote renewable energy and energy efficiency is extremely important.”
Final passage of the legislation still requires the Democrats to steer through a complicated procedural obstacle and to win support of Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona, another Democrat who has balked at some Biden initiatives, and their House of Representatives colleagues.
The most far-reaching environmental initiative in American history, the legislation would instantly propel the United States out of the bottom rungs of the fight against climate change, allowing the country to trim greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of the decade to 40 per cent below 2005 levels. The agreement was reached as 55 per cent of Americans said they thought this summer was warmer than usual, according to the most recent YouGov poll.
It was the result of the political sleight of hand that has been part of the Biden portfolio for decades, and was undertaken with such confidentiality by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York that it stunned Washington, where secrets customarily have a half-life of about half a minute.
Mr. Manchin, an ardent supporter of his state’s coal and gas interests and a beneficiary of substantial contributions from the energy sector, cloaked his opposition to the Biden-backed bill by saying he feared it would fuel inflation. By making subtle adjustments in 10 days of sequestered negotiations, easing the route to approval of a shale-gas pipeline in his state, throwing in a few concessions to fossil-fuel producers, accommodating some Manchin preferences on health care spending, shrewdly mixing in a decrease in prescription drug prices and then changing the name of the legislation to the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Mr. Manchin was backed into a corner from which even he, known as something of a political magus, could not escape.
“It is significant that Manchin didn’t continue to be obdurate,” said Joel A. Tarr, a Carnegie Mellon University historian who studies the effect of technology on the urban environment. “Finally, something on climate is going to be accomplished.”
Continued resistance to action on climate change was, in a phrase borrowed from the environmental movement itself, unsustainable. More than eight out of 10 Americans now believe the climate is changing, though about a quarter of them (and almost half of Republicans) believe the change is not caused by human activity, according to the YouGov poll.
“The Democrats should hold on to this deal with dear life, run like hell with it all the way into the end zone, then cue the marching band to play until election day,” said Terry F. Yosie, a former Environmental Protection Agency official and onetime president of the World Environment Center.
Even if the development has little effect on this fall’s midterm congressional elections – Stanford University political scientist David Brady said he has seen “no real bump for Biden or the Democrats” – the news cheered environmental activists around the United States. Rev. James Antal, who was president of the 400 United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts and is the author of Climate Church, Climate World, called the development “a step toward climate reality.”
Mr. Antal, who in 2006 vowed that every Sunday he would mention or emphasize climate issues in his sermons, said his colleagues told him that his prayers had been answered. “I think that with this news we have to say: ‘Hallelujah!’”
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