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India’s I.C.M.R. Is a ‘Political Weapon’ Under Modi, Some Scientists Say

NEW DELHI — The forecast was mathematically based, government-approved and deeply, tragically wrong.

In September 2020, eight months before a deadly Covid-19 second wave struck India, government-appointed scientists downplayed the possibility of a new outbreak. Previous infections and early lockdown efforts had tamed the spread, the scientists wrote in a study that was widely covered by the Indian news media after it was released last year.

The results dovetailed neatly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two main goals: restart India’s stricken economy and kick off campaigning for his party in state elections that coming spring. But Anup Agarwal, a physician then working for India’s top science agency, which reviewed and published the study, worried that its conclusions would lull the country into a false sense of security.

Dr. Agarwal took his concerns to the agency’s top official in October. The response: He and another concerned scientist were reprimanded, he said.

In the wake of the devastating second wave, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, many in India are asking how Mr. Modi’s government missed the warning signs. Part of the answer, according to current and former government researchers and documents reviewed by The New York Times, is that senior officials forced scientists at elite institutions to downplay the threat to prioritize Mr. Modi’s political goals.

“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” said Dr. Agarwal, 32.

Senior officials at Dr. Agarwal’s agency — called the Indian Council of Medical Research, or I.C.M.R. — suppressed data showing the risks, according to the researchers and documents. They pressured scientists to withdraw another study that called the government’s efforts into question, the researchers said, and distanced the agency from a third study that foresaw a second wave.

Agency scientists interviewed by The Times described a culture of silence. Midlevel researchers worried that they would be passed over for promotions and other opportunities if they questioned superiors, they said.

“Science thrives in an environment where you can openly question evidence and discuss it dispassionately and objectively,” said Shahid Jameel, one of India’s top virologists and a former government adviser, who has been critical of the agency.

“That, sadly, at so many levels, has been missing,” he said.

The science agency declined to answer detailed questions. In a statement, it said it was a “premier research organization” that had helped to expand India’s testing capacity. India’s health ministry, which oversees the agency, did not respond to requests for comment.

India is hardly the first country where virus science has become politicized. The United States remains far short of taming the disease as politicians and anti-vaccine activists, fueled by disinformation and credulous media, challenge the scientific consensus on vaccines and wearing masks. The Chinese government has tried to obscure the outbreak’s origin, while vaccine skeptics have won audiences from Russia to Spain to Tanzania.

India, a vast country with an underfunded health care system, would have struggled to contain the second wave no matter what. A more contagious new variant fueled the spread. People had stopped wearing masks and socially distancing.

“Prime Minister Modi has never, ever said to lower the guard,” said Vijay Chauthaiwale, a member of Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Still, the government contributed to complacency. Mr. Modi boasted in January, just months before the devastating second wave hit, that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster.” Harsh Vardhan, then the health minister, said in March that the country was “in the endgame of Covid-19.” (Amid criticism over the government’s response, Dr. Vardhan stepped down in July.)

The I.C.M.R., which conducts and reviews research for the government, played a major role in shaping perceptions. India has not released granular data on the virus’s spread, hampering the ability of scientists to study it. In that vacuum, the agency offered projections that often steered debate.

Politics began to influence the agency’s approach early last year, according to scientists familiar with its deliberations.

In April 2020, in the midst of a nationwide lockdown ordered by Mr. Modi, the government blamed an early outbreak on an Islamic gathering, spurring attacks against Muslims by some Hindu nationalists, who provide the core of the prime minister’s support.

Amid that anger, some officials within the science agency said the gathering had undermined containment efforts. The gathering “has undone the benefits of lockdown,” said one news outlet, citing an agency source. Raman Gangakhedkar, then its chief scientist, in an interview singled out the gathering as an “unexpected surprise.”

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Gangakhedkar said that he had expressed “anguish” over the government’s statements targeting Muslims but said the science agency’s director general, Balram Bhargava, told him that the matter should not concern him. Dr. Bhargava did not respond to requests for comment.

The lockdown did severe economic damage. Once it ebbed, Mr. Modi moved to rekindle the economy and start election campaigning — and government scientists, researchers within the agency said, helped pave the way.

In June 2020, a study commissioned by the agency concluded that Mr. Modi’s lockdown had slowed but would not stop the virus’s spread. Within days, the authors withdrew it. The agency, saying the study’s modeling had not been peer-reviewed, wrote in a tweet that it “does not reflect the official position of I.C.M.R.”

One of the study’s authors, along with a scientist familiar with it, said the authors had withdrawn it amid pressure from the agency’s leaders, who questioned its findings and complained that it had been published before they had reviewed it. The move was unusual, the scientists said, adding that the agency’s leadership would typically adjust problematic language rather than demand a paper be withdrawn.

In July 2020, Dr. Bhargava issued two directives to agency scientists that his internal critics saw as politically motivated.

The first called on scientists at a number of institutions to help approve, in just six weeks, a coronavirus vaccine developed by Indian scientists. In a memo dated July 2 and reviewed by The Times, Dr. Bhargava said the agency aimed to approve the vaccine by Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day, an event at which Mr. Modi frequently urges the country toward greater self-reliance. “Kindly note that noncompliance will be viewed very seriously,” the directive read.

The request alarmed agency scientists. Regulators in other countries were still months away from approving their own vaccines. The agency’s top leaders backed off once the timetable became public. (The vaccine was approved by the Indian authorities months later, in January.)

Dr. Bhargava’s second directive, issued in late July 2020, forced scientists to withhold data that suggested the virus was still spreading in 10 cities, according to emails and scientists familiar with the work.

The data came from the agency’s serological studies, which tracked the disease based on antibodies in blood samples. The data showed high infection rates in some neighborhoods, including in Delhi and Mumbai, despite containment efforts. In a July 25 email reviewed by The Times, Dr. Bhargava told the scientists that “I have not got approval” to publish the data.

“You are sitting in an ivory tower and not understanding the sensitivity,” Dr. Bhargava wrote. “I am sincerely disappointed.”

Naman Shah, a physician who worked on the studies, said withholding the data worked against science and democracy.

“This is a government which clearly has a philosophy and history of trying to assert power by capturing every institution and making it an arena for political struggle,” he said.

The data that I.C.M.R. did release helped officials argue incorrectly, to the country and the world, that the coronavirus wasn’t spreading in India as virulently as in the United States, Brazil, Britain and France.

Then, last autumn, an agency-approved study wrongly suggested that the worst was over.

Known as the Supermodel in India, the study projected that the pandemic would ebb in India by mid-February. It cited Mr. Modi’s lockdown earlier in 2020. It said that the country may have reached herd immunity because more than 350 million people had already been infected or developed antibodies. The science agency fast-tracked the study’s approval, said Dr. Agarwal and other people familiar with its progress.

Scientists inside and outside the agency picked the study apart. Other countries were nowhere close to herd immunity. Plenty of people in India still hadn’t been infected. None of the study’s authors were epidemiologists. Its model appeared to have been designed to fit the conclusion, some scientists said.

“They had parameters which can’t be measured and whenever the curve was not matching, they changed that parameter,” said Somdatta Sinha, a retired scientist who studies infectious disease models and who wrote a rebuttal. “I mean, we don’t do modeling like that. This is misguiding people.”

Dr. Agarwal, the agency physician, said he took his concerns in October to Dr. Bhargava, who told him it was “none of his business.” Dr. Bhargava, he said, then summoned another scientist who had raised concerns about the study with Dr. Agarwal and reprimanded them both.

M. Vidyasagar, chairman of the committee that produced the Supermodel, declined to comment. Indian science officials said in May, as the second wave tore through the country, that the panel’s mathematical model “can only predict future with some certainty so long as virus dynamics and its transmissibility don’t change substantially over time.”

One study, published in January 2021, did predict a second wave. Published in the journal Nature, it said that such an outbreak could strike if restrictions were “lifted without any other mitigations in place” and called for more testing. One of its authors worked for the I.C.M.R., but its leadership pressured him to remove his affiliation with the agency from the paper, said people familiar with the matter.

The second wave struck in April. With hospitals overwhelmed, Indian health officials recommended treatments that the government’s own scientists had found to be ineffective.

One was blood plasma. Dr. Agarwal and his colleagues had concluded months before that blood plasma did not help Covid-19 patients, a finding that echoed others. The agency dropped the recommendation in May.

The government still recommends a second treatment, the Indian-made malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is ineffective. Desperate families scrambled to find both during the second wave, creating black markets where prices soared.

Current and former agency scientists said they didn’t speak out because they considered the treatments politically protected. Mr. Modi’s party had organized plasma donation camps last year to mark his 70th birthday. The Indian government also used hydroxychloroquine as a diplomatic tool, winning points with Donald J. Trump, then the American president, and Jair M. Bolsonaro, the Brazilian leader, who both pressured New Delhi last year to lift its export limits on the drug.

“If you want to work somewhere for the rest of your life, you want a good relationship with people,” Dr. Agarwal said. “You just be nonconfrontational about everything.”

Dr. Agarwal resigned in October and later worked in Gallup, N.M. Now a physician in Baltimore, he said his experience with the agency had driven him to leave India.

“You start questioning your work, you know,” he said. “And then, you get disillusioned by it.”

Emily Schmall contributed reporting.

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F.D.A. Decision on Covid Booster Shots Is Expected In Days

The Food and Drug Administration is likely to authorize Pfizer booster shots this week for many Americans at high risk of falling seriously ill from the coronavirus, now that a key advisory committee has voted to recommend the measure.

On Friday, a panel of experts endorsed offering Pfizer booster shots for ages 65 and older, and people 16 and over who are at high risk of getting severe Covid-19 or who work in settings that make them more likely to get infected.

The agency, which often follows the committee’s advice but is not required to, is expected to decide early this week. An advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday to discuss booster shots before that agency — which sets vaccine policy — issues its recommendations.

The decision on Pfizer booster shots is just one of a series of key questions that the agency is expected to consider in coming weeks. Officials have said they expect to soon have data on whether boosters are needed for people who got the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Also expected this fall is a decision on a shot for children ages 5 to 11, an intensely watched issue given that about 48 million children are not yet eligible for a vaccine, but have largely returned to classrooms. Pfizer has said it plans to release the results of its children’s trial by the end of this month, and officials have said they expect results from Moderna’s children’s trial later this fall.

Interviewed on Sunday-morning news shows, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor and an adviser to President Biden, asked Americans to be patient and not to get a booster shot until they were eligible. That includes people 65 and over who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“We’re working on that right now to get the data to the F.D.A., so they can examine it and make a determination about the boosters for those people,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They’re not being left behind by any means.”

Last month, the Biden administration proposed a plan that would have made all vaccinated Americans eligible for a booster shot eight months after their second shot, or their first in the case of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But the expert panel concluded that boosters were not necessary for most younger, healthier Americans, unless their jobs put them at special risk for infection.

Jobs in that category would include health care workers, emergency responders and teachers, according to Dr. Peter Marks, who oversees the F.D.A.’s vaccine division.

Whatever the F.D.A. decides about boosters this week, Dr. Fauci predicted it will likely be revised as more data comes in. “In real time, more and more data are accumulating,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “There will be a continual re-examination of that data, and potential modification of recommendations.”

Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, echoed those remarks on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying that the category of who is eligible for an extra shot was likely to be expanded in the “coming weeks.”

F.D.A. officials will also spend the coming weeks and months evaluating vaccines for children under 12. On Sunday on ABC, Dr. Fauci said a decision on children’s vaccines would certainly come “this fall,” adding, “sometime in the mid- to late fall, we will be seeing enough data from the children from 11 down to 5 to be able to make a decision to vaccinate them.” A decision on vaccines for children under 5 would come after that.

The flurry of decisions comes as public health officials hope to avoid a repeat of last fall and winter, when a surge of infections led to peak levels of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States.

The extremely transmissible Delta variant now accounts for more than 99 percent of cases tracked in the country, according to the C.D.C. While hospitalizations and new cases have started to trend slowly downward, deaths have topped an average of 2,000 a day for the first time since March 1, according to a New York Times database. Vaccinations have been shown to protect against severe illness brought on by the variant.

Dr. Fauci said on Sunday that the key to avoiding a fall and winter surge would be encouraging adults who were eligible but still unvaccinated to change their mind.

“I believe if we get that overwhelming majority of the people vaccinated as we enter into the fall and winter, we can have good control over this and not have a really bad winter at all,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

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Fighting a Pandemic, While Launching Africa’s Health Revolution

When Dr. John Nkengasong took the job as the first head of Africa’s new Centers for Disease Control in 2017, part of the continent had just emerged from a devastating Ebola outbreak. Less than three years later, Covid-19 hit.

Dr. Nkengasong is now trying to bring together the governments of a vast, diverse continent to anticipate and fight public health threats and make them less reliant on international institutions like the World Health Organization or the Red Cross. He has helped Africa speak with a unified voice, particularly about what he calls “vaccine famine,” with rich countries buying up millions of doses they do not need while Africa goes wanting.

Perhaps Ebola was a signal that something bigger was looming, he says, and that something turned out to be Covid-19. He also thinks Covid-19 could be a harbinger of something worse to come: a virus as contagious as the Delta variant but with the high fatality rate of Ebola.

The Africa C.D.C. was started in response to the Ebola outbreak, with funding from the African Union and some other donors. When Dr. Nkengasong arrived, for months there was no office, no staff and even at one point no internet; the Ethiopian government had shut it down to prevent people from cheating on university entrance exams.

But, he says: “We can do public health under the tree. It doesn’t really matter. The thing is the concepts. Are you committed to solving problems of inequity and health security?”

(This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.)

In December 2019 I was on leave, and we started hearing stories on the virus in Wuhan. I called Addis Ababa and said, “Activate our Emergency Operations Center.” I got initial pushback from my own staff. They said, “Well, this thing is happening far-off. We have Ebola going on in North Kivu.” They said, “We already are too busy.” I said, “Please, just do it, because I know that this will come.”

The continent started off well. We’d positioned ourselves. We scrambled. We trained people. It will sound ridiculous, but at the first trainings we did in South Africa and Senegal, everybody went home with a pack of 100 tests.

An emergency is where your house is on fire. You run around, you call 911, they come sprinkle water. That phase is over. We are now in a phase where your house is burned down. How to build a new house?

I think this virus is winning. As a continent, we are not winning. Today we have more than seven million cases with close to 180,000 deaths. And the death rates are all increasing very dramatically across the continent. Vaccination rates are very, very low. We are around 2.5 percent of the population vaccinated fully, and this is a continent of 1.2 billion people.

The story of access to vaccines and the role Covax was supposed to play is what I call a moral tragedy.

The intent and the design was perfect, excellent, but the execution — even the people running Covax will admit that it has not delivered on its promise.

Those countries that are funding Covax, or pledged funding, were developed countries. So they pledged. I’m not sure that they necessarily gave money. But then, they bought the vaccines, all the vaccines. So even with the money that Covax had, there was nowhere to get vaccines from.

We are not saying, donate to us. Don’t give us the vaccines. We’re just saying, let Africa come forward with their 400 million doses of vaccines — that they have paid for! By just swapping the order in which we are in the queue for vaccine delivery, I think you can begin to solve a lot of the problems.

Governments have not invested enough in their own public health needs.

The whole architecture — public health architecture and health security architecture — has been designed, since the Second World War, in such a way that they created a lot of dependency, Africa on the outside world.

Africa has about three million health care workers. That is almost nothing. So you clearly see the negligence. And our health security architecture was designed when the population of Africa was less than 300 million. Today, where are we? We are 1.2 billion people, aspiring to get to 2.5 or 2.4 billion in the next 30 years.

No people will survive with importing 99 percent of their vaccines and importing 100 percent of their diagnostics. It doesn’t make sense. We need 6,000 epidemiologists. We currently have only about 1,900 on the continent.

It still has to be a battle that is won or lost at the community level. Misinformation continues to be a serious issue.

However, when I look at the trends, what is happening on the continent, I’m very encouraged. I was in Morocco, and at the Tangier sports stadium you had long lines of young people. When I approached them, I thought there was a soccer match going on, but it was people registering online to get the vaccine. We’ve seen similar scenarios in Kigali, in Nairobi.

So vaccine hesitancy is no longer the issue. Vaccine famine is the real challenge now, not vaccine hesitancy.

It was to get to at least 25 to 30 percent by the end of the year. But that would be dependent on many factors. Are countries that have secured vaccines ready to release those vaccines?

At the pace we are doing it, we are very deliberately moving toward endemicity of this virus on the continent, no doubt about that. Now it’s concentrated in big cities, but it will soon spread into remote areas, and it becomes very, very difficult to flush out.

I grew up in Cameroon. You leave and you think you’ll go back, and then life carries you on from one part of the world to another and you just keep going.

I remember when I took the job, my colleagues said, “John, maybe you’re going through a midlife crisis? Why would you leave Atlanta and leave your job, and go and start something that you really don’t know?” But it was in me that I had to do that.

For almost a year, I didn’t have an office. I had a big name of a director, but there was no place to sit and work.

Has it been easy? Not at all.

The moment you say you have a C.D.C., the expectations are very high. Especially borrowing a name from a renowned C.D.C. like the U.S. C.D.C. put a lot of pressure and expectation on our shoulders very, very early on.

Shirley Chisholm said that if they do not give you a chair around the table, go there with a folded chair. Don’t ask for permission to do what is your right.

Imagine, the first conference on public health in Africa will be organized by Africa C.D.C. at the end of this year.

Why is that important? It provides a platform for African public health experts to interact, share experiences, learn from each other.

Second, is that we invest in our own schools of public health and believe in our own schools of public health.

Learning a lesson is what Africa is currently doing; we don’t have vaccines, we have to produce vaccines.

If we continue on this journey driven by a new public health order, when the next pandemic hits, we’ll be fighting it very, very differently.

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Joe Manchin Will Craft U.S. Climate Plan

WASHINGTON — Joe Manchin, the powerful West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate energy panel and earned half a million dollars last year from coal production, is preparing to remake President Biden’s climate legislation in a way that tosses a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry — despite urgent calls from scientists that countries need to quickly pivot away from coal, gas and oil to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Mr. Manchin has already emerged as the crucial up-or-down vote in a sharply divided Senate when it comes to Mr. Biden’s push to pass a $3.5 trillion budget bill that could reshape the nation’s social welfare network. But Mr. Biden also wants the bill to include an aggressive climate policy that would compel utilities to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to wind, solar or nuclear energy, sources that do not emit the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Mr. Manchin holds the pen and the gavel of the congressional panel, with the authority to shape Mr. Biden’s ambitions.

But Mr. Manchin is also closely associated with the fossil fuel industry. His beloved West Virginia is second in coal and seventh in natural gas production among the 50 states. In the current election cycle, Mr. Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, a research organization that tracks political spending.

He profits personally from polluting industries: He owns stock valued at between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage firm which he founded in 1988. He gave control of the firm to his son, Joseph, after he was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 2000. Last year, Mr. Manchin made $491,949 in dividends from his Enersystems stock, according to his Senate financial disclosure report.

“It says something fascinating about our politics that we’re going to have a representative of fossil fuel interests crafting the policy that reduces our emissions from fossil fuels,” said Joseph Aldy, who helped craft former President Barack Obama’s climate change bill and now teaches at Harvard.

Mr. Manchin’s spokeswoman, Sam Runyon, wrote in a statement that the senator “is in full compliance with Senate ethics and financial disclosure rules. He continues to work to find a path forward on important climate legislation that maintains American leadership in energy innovation and critical energy reliability.” She noted that Mr. Manchin had helped shape recent legislation that included some climate provisions, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last month.

During his 2010 Senate campaign, Mr. Manchin famously appeared in a television ad in which he used a shotgun to put a bullet hole through Mr. Obama’s climate plan, “‘cause it’s bad for West Virginia,” he said. More recently, Mr. Manchin has publicly acknowledged the contribution of fossil fuel pollution to rising global temperatures.

“There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it,” he co-wrote in a 2019 opinion article in the Washington Post with Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.

But Mr. Manchin has also made clear that he does not support legislation that would eliminate the burning of those fossil fuels — particularly coal and natural gas.

Now, Mr. Manchin is preparing to write the climate portion of the budget bill in a way that would keep natural gas flowing to power plants, according to people familiar with his thinking. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Mr. Manchin does support some climate measures proposed by Mr. Biden, but is working to ensure they protect and extend the use of coal and natural gas. He agrees with the president that communities dependent on fossil fuels deserve financial support as the country transitions to green energy. And he is a booster of carbon capture sequestration, a nascent technology that collects carbon emissions from smokestacks and buries them in the ground. If it were to become commercially viable, that technology could allow industries to continue to burn coal, oil and gas.

But the most powerful climate mechanism in the budget bill — and the one that Mr. Manchin intends to reshape — is a $150 billion program designed to replace most of the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear power over the next decade. Known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, it would pay utilities to ratchet up the amount of power they produce from zero-emissions sources, and fine those that don’t.

As envisioned by the White House and House Democrats, the carrot-and-stick approach could transform the nation’s electricity sector, the second-largest source of greenhouse pollution after transportation. The policy is crucial to Mr. Biden’s goal of producing 80 percent of electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2030 and 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, analysts say. It could also help lower pollution from automobiles since electric cars and trucks would be drawing power from a grid powered by clean energy.

“This policy is an essential foundation for rapidly reducing emissions in the most polluting sectors of the economy,” said Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environment research organization.

Mr. Manchin’s version is widely expected to have less ambitious renewable energy requirements for electric power companies. His version could also reward utilities that build new power plants designed to burn natural gas. While it emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal, natural gas is still a major contributor to global warming.

Fossil fuel lobbyists, utility executives and West Virginia business leaders have been meeting, calling and emailing Mr. Manchin and his staff in an effort to shape the bill.

Several said in recent interviews that they expect that Mr. Manchin’s plan will reward companies that increase their supply of clean energy — but the incentives will be smaller and require less. Under the version supported by the White House and House Democrats, companies would qualify for payments if they increase the amount of clean electricity they supply to customers by 4 percent a year through 2030. Mr. Manchin is likely to lower that requirement to 3 percent a year or less, said two people familiar with the matter.

That would still be an improvement over business as usual: American electric utilities increased their use of zero-carbon power sources by roughly 1.4 percentage points a year over the last five years. That use increased about 2.3 percentage points in 2020.

“While this will fall far short of what President Biden wants, it could still be the largest action Congress has ever taken on climate change,” Mr. Aldy, the former Obama climate adviser, said.

Mr. Manchin is also weighing a provision that would pay utilities not just for using more clean energy but for switching from coal — an industry that is already collapsing — to natural gas. The incentives for using natural gas would be smaller but designed to keep the industry afloat.

Among the industry executives to whom Mr. Manchin is listening closely is Nick Akins, the head of American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility that serves 11 states, including West Virginia, and relies on West Virginia coal for many of its power plants.

The two men have a long working relationship and spoke earlier this month — each man has the other’s cellphone number.

Mr. Akins said he would like Mr. Manchin to slow the pace at which electric utilities are required to migrate from dirty to clean fuels, and eliminate fines against power companies that fail to switch to clean electricity sources.

“He is supportive of a clean energy future, like we all are,” Mr. Akins said. “But these transitions take time. We can’t cram all that into eight years,” he said, referring to Mr. Biden’s goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030.

“And I don’t like the penalty — we already have all the impetus in the world to continue to this clean energy transition,” Mr. Akins added.

Mr. Aldy said removing fines would drastically weaken the bill. “The penalty on pollution is really important,” he said. “All the analyses show that you get big reductions in carbon emissions if you have a penalty on polluting. Take that away, and all you have is another government subsidy for renewable energy.”

Mr. Manchin is also listening closely to his constituents. Earlier this month, the senator spent two days at the annual meeting of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, convened at the lavish Greenbrier resort, where “people were lining up to talk to him about this,” said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and another old friend of Mr. Manchin’s. “This is something that has been talked about in West Virginia business circles probably every day within the last two or three weeks.”

Those conversations didn’t challenge the reality of climate change or whether the government should act to combat it, Mr. Roberts said. The main theme was “slow down,” he said.

“It wouldn’t offend me at all if you said, ‘Yes, it’s getting hotter and people need to run their air conditioning more.’ And Joe Manchin feels the same way,” Mr. Roberts said.

“But we think we have to be realistic about the elimination of carbon emissions,” he continued. “We’re not really sure that the combination of demand and physics with world market issues will mean that we can go to zero emissions from electricity by 2035, like President Biden wants.”

In May, the world’s leading energy agency said nations must immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and new oil and gas fields, and quickly phase out gasoline-powered vehicles to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Scientists have said the world needs to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels, or risk irreversible damage. The planet has already warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. On Friday, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said “the world is on a catastrophic pathway.”

Environmentalists and progressives are demanding urgent federal action and are concerned that Democrats have only a short window before the 2022 elections when they could lose control of Congress.

“This is not the time to water down the biggest driver of reducing climate pollution,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. “We are absolutely out of time when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis.”

The proposals now being weighed by Mr. Manchin “would keep fossil fuels as a major engine of the economy for longer than the climate can bear it,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University.

When Mr. Biden was asked last week if he would sign a budget package with slimmed-down climate measures, he responded, “I’m for more climate measures.”

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