How Conflicts of Interest Harm the Climate

From the “Le Quotidien” newsletter: A big take on current affairs, from the team that brings you “The Daily” podcast. You can subscribe ...


From the “Le Quotidien” newsletter: A big take on current affairs, from the team that brings you “The Daily” podcast. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Conflicts of interest are, by their nature, often concealed. Financial link here, family link there, concealed by the division of public and private life. But what happens when these conflicting interests influence national – and international – politics?

Within the executive, the Trump presidency has been dominated by this question. In the judiciary, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is under pressure to recuse himself from matters relating to the 2020 election and its aftermath The Times revealed that Virginia Thomas, his wife, was involved in efforts to overturn the vote. And in the legislature, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, faces increasing scrutiny over his financial ties to the coal industry.

The influence of money and corporations in the federal government is a “growing problem,” said Aaron D. Hill, associate professor of management at the University of Florida. Nearly one in eight stock market transactions by members of Congress intersects with legislation, and research shows that the members of the lodge and Senate produce”abnormally high yieldson their investments. Yet members of Congress are subject to less stringent rules (or, sometimes, not applied) control of conflicts of interest than those of other branches of government.

But what is the impact of this lack of oversight? As you heard on Tuesday’s show, at every stage of his political career, Manchin has helped a West Virginia power plant that is his private coal company’s only customer. Along the way, he blocked ambitious climate action.

So we reached out to Bill McKibben, environmental activist, professor and author, to ask him about the ripple effects of Manchin’s actions on the climate movement. His answers were slightly edited.

You recently wrote“The climate movement came very close — one senator close — to beating the political power of Big Oil. But it’s not close enough. How have Manchin’s actions affected the broader climate movement?

For Biden and his climate efforts, Manchin’s opposition looks atrocious. Democrats can do nothing to offend him for fear of losing his vote. So they’ve largely given up executive authority over the climate, but he never quite delivers the vote. Now he seems to say that if he gives money for renewable energy, it must also come with money for fossil fuels. I would say Big Oil has never made an investment with a higher rate of return.

On climate, at least so far, we might have been better off without Senate control, because then at least we could have gotten what executive action could accomplish.

In Manchin’s case, Congress’s shortcomings on conflicts of interest have consequences far beyond US borders. What equity concerns does this illuminate?

We don’t just pillage America’s energy future to please a corrupt coal baron; he also succeeded in upending global climate politics. The plan for Glasgow, I think, was for Biden to come in with Build Back Better in his hip pocket, slam it on the table, and tell the Chinese and Indian delegations to match him. Instead, he arrived with nothing, gave a limp speech – not sure if he fell asleep afterwards, but the conference did.

In 2020, fossil fuel pollution killed about three times as many people as did the Covid-19. This statistic may seem overwhelming. As an activist, what do you think are the most effective strategies to generate momentum and a sense of urgency in the face of the climate crisis?

The sad thing is that we generated a ton of them. It was biggest voting problem for Democratic primary voters, and the question where polls have shown Trump’s position to be furthest from the mainstream. But people’s desire no longer translates reliably into political action in our system. There has never been a purer case of vested interest thwarting necessary action. As the Exxon lobbyist said a hidden camera last summer, Manchin was the “kingmaker”. Or, alternatively, the man who melts the ice and raises the sea.

What makes you optimistic about climate action lately?

Well, now is the perfect time for action, and in some places we’re starting to see it. Vladimir Putin reminded us that the daily carnage of pollution and the existential threat of climate damage join the fact that fossil fuels most often underpin despotism. It could be a pivot, and in the case of the EU, it could turn out to be. But so far, Biden and his team haven’t really conveyed it that way. They focused much more on hauling water for Big Oil.

But I can tell you that more and more people are getting it, and not only young people who have been leading the fight for the climate. Our 60+ team at Third Act [a climate action group focused on mobilizing “experienced Americans”] are joining in large numbers in this commitment to confront the banks that support the fossil fuel industry. After record temperatures in Antarctica combined with missile strikes on Mariupol, people are fed up.

This week we caught up with Michael Simon Johnson, a Senior Producer, for our series in which we ask Daily producers and editors to tell us about their favorite episodes they’ve worked on.

Michael’s choice is “A glut of oil», from the spring of 2020. It is an episode that looks back on half a century of American foreign and energy policy to explain how, at the time, the price of a barrel of oil fell into the negative. And it’s one that has particular resonance today as parts of the world ponder how to reduce dependence on Russian oil amid the war in Ukraine.

What was “A Glut of Oil” about?

It was an episode we did in April 2020, when oil prices fell into the negative. It needed some context so a lot of the episode went through history starting with the Arab-Israeli war in the 70s the US stepped in to supply weapons – much like we are currently with Ukraine – and Arab countries in retaliation by cutting off our oil supply, causing an energy crisis. It was important to start there because that’s where our foreign policy changes. The whole point of energy independence was to be able to exercise control over our foreign policy and not let other countries dictate who we help and why – or where we invade.

We have spent 50 years trying to solve this problem and we have succeeded. Then the pandemic happened and we literally had the opposite problem: what happens when we have too much oil?

Why is this one of your favorite episodes you worked on?

What it did for me was take all of these aspects of American history that I don’t tend to think of as related and it drew a line between them; they are in fact all part of a single continuum. I reassessed modern American history through the prism of oil, and saw so many more connections because of it than I otherwise would have seen. Going back in time allowed us to take this amazing journey through history and through archival tapes.

How important is it that there is a historical context in climatic episodes?

Historical context is one of the first tools we turn to when doing an episode in general, but it is not specific to climatic episodes. We generally try to arm listeners with the tools they need to understand and get more context for what’s going on. We want people to understand what is happening as part of a continuum.


Monday: The story of Iryna Baramideone of the millions of Ukrainians who fled their country during the war.

Tuesday: Inside the Manchin Investigation conflicts of interest.

Wednesday: How Judge Thomas and his wife, Ginni, came to the heart of the conservative movement.

Thusday: Why this year’s midterm reviews might have the fairest congress card in one generation.

Friday: What’s going on inside the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol?

Do you have any thoughts on the show? Tell us what you think of thedaily@nytimes.com.

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