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How Conflicts of Interest Are Hurting the Climate

From “The Daily” newsletter: One big idea on the news, from the team that brings you “The Daily” podcast. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Conflicts of interest are, by their nature, often obscured. A financial tie here, a family connection there, concealed by the division of public and private life. But what happens when those conflicting interests inform national — and international — policy?

In the executive branch, the Trump presidency was dominated by this question. In the judicial branch, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is under pressure to recuse himself from cases regarding the 2020 election and its aftermath after The Times revealed that Virginia Thomas, his wife, was involved in efforts to overturn the vote. And in the legislative branch, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, is facing increasing scrutiny of 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 trades by members of Congress intersects with legislation, and research shows that members of the House and Senate generate “abnormally higher returns” on their investments. Still, Congress members are subject to less stringent (or, at times, unenforced) oversight on conflicts of interests than those in other branches of government.

But what is the impact of this lack of oversight? As you heard on Tuesday’s show, at every step of his political career, Manchin helped a West Virginia power plant that is the sole customer of his private coal business. 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 rippling effects of Manchin’s actions on the climate movement. His responses have been lightly edited.

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

For Biden and his climate efforts, Manchin’s opposition seems to be excruciating. The Democrats can’t do anything to offend him for fear of forfeiting his vote. So they’ve largely given up executive authority on climate, but he never quite delivers the vote. Now he seems to be saying that if he gives some money for renewables, it has to come with money for fossil fuel as well. I’d 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 control of the Senate, because then at least we could have gotten what executive action could accomplish.

In the case of Manchin, congressional conflict-of-interest loopholes have consequences well beyond American borders. What equity concerns does this illuminate?

We’re not just gutting America’s energy future to please one corrupt coal baron; he’s managed to upend global climate policy, too. The plan for Glasgow, I think, was for Biden to arrive with Build Back Better in his hip pocket, slam it down on the table and tell the Chinese and Indian delegations to match it. Instead he arrived with nothing, gave a limp speech — I’m not certain he went to sleep afterward, but the conference did.

In 2020, fossil fuel pollution killed about three times as many people as Covid-19 did. This statistic can feel overwhelming. As an activist, what are the most effective strategies you see for generating momentum and a sense of urgency in addressing the climate crisis?

The sad thing is, we’ve generated a ton of it. It was the biggest voting issue for Democratic primary voters, and the issue where polling showed Trump’s position was furthest off from the mainstream. But the desire of people doesn’t reliably translate into political action in our system anymore. There’s never been a purer case of vested interest thwarting necessary action. As the Exxon lobbyist told a hidden camera last summer, Manchin was the “kingmaker.” Or, alternately, the man who melts the ice and raises the sea.

What is making you feel optimistic about climate action lately?

Well, it’s the perfect moment for action, and some places we’re starting to see it. Vladimir Putin has reminded us that the daily carnage of pollution and the existential threat of climate damage are joined by the fact that fossil fuel underwrites despotism more often than not. It could be a pivot point, and, in the case of the E.U., may turn out to be. But so far here, Biden and his team haven’t really messaged it that way. They’ve been way more focused on carrying water for Big Oil.

But I can tell you that more and more people are getting it, and not just the young people who have been in the lead of the climate fight. Our crew of over-60s at Third Act [a climate action group focused on mobilizing “experienced Americans”] are joining in large numbers this pledge to take on the banks that back the fossil fuel industry. After the record temperatures in the Antarctic combined with the missile strikes on Mariupol, people have had enough.

This week, we sat down 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 that they’ve worked on.

Michael’s pick is “A Glut of Oil,” from the spring of 2020. It’s an episode that looks back at half a century of American foreign and energy policy to explain how, at the time, the price of a barrel of oil dropped into the negatives. And it’s one that has particular resonance today as parts of the world grapple with how to reduce reliance 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 dropped into the negatives. It required some context, so a huge portion of the episode ticked through history, starting with the Arab-Israeli War in the ’70s, the U.S. stepping in to provide weapons — not unlike the way we are with Ukraine right now — and Arab countries retaliating by cutting off our oil supply, causing an energy crisis. It felt important to start there because that is where it changes our foreign policy. The whole point of energy independence was so that we can exercise control over our foreign policy and not have other countries dictate who we help and why — or where we invade.

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

Why is it one of your favorite episodes that you’ve 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’re actually all part of a single continuum. I re-evaluated modern American history through the lens of oil, and I saw so many more connections because of that than I would have seen otherwise. Going back in history allowed us to go on this amazing journey through history and through archival tape.

How important is it for there to be historical context in climate episodes?

Historical context is one of the first tools we turn to when we’re making an episode in general, but it’s not specific to climate episodes. We are generally trying to arm listeners with the tools they need to understand and to have more context for what is happening. We want people to understand what is happening as some part of a continuum.


Monday: The story of Iryna Baramidze, one of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their country amid the war.

Tuesday: Inside the investigation into Manchin’s conflicts of interest.

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

Thursday: Why this year’s midterms could have the fairest congressional map in a generation.

Friday: What is happening inside the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol?

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