Biden named fighting the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet as one of his top priorities, along with fighting the pandemic.
But those ambitions suffered a serious blow last week when Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) rejected plans to spend $300 billion to expand clean energy incentives. And last month the Supreme Court erected legal barriers to the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide from power plants, the second-largest source of the greenhouse gas.
“As President, I have a responsibility to act quickly and decisively when our nation faces a clear and present danger. And that’s what climate change is all about. It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger,” Biden said.
His comments come as more than 100 million Americans simmer under 100-degree temperatures and European nations face record-breaking heat. The western United States is suffering from its worst mega-drought in 1,200 years, which is drying up reservoirs and slowing the flow of the Colorado River, which provides water for millions of people.
Biden sweated visibly as he delivered his speech on a muggy, 90-plus-degree afternoon in southeastern Massachusetts, the second day of a heatwave that forced communities across the state to open cooling centers for residents and declare heat emergencies. Sen. Elizabeth Waren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) wear black baseball caps to protect themselves from the blazing sun.
As he has done since the campaign, Biden sought to shape his climate agenda in terms of fostering job growth in new competitive arenas of the economy. The backdrop to Wednesday’s performance helped convey this message: Biden was speaking in view of the site of the disused Brayton Point coal-fired power plant being converted into Massachusetts’ first offshore wind farm, a dusty and rocky expanse on the banks of the Taunton River full of towers, power lines and huge warehouses that are being repurposed for wind power generation.
“It’s the perfect place for President Biden to speak on climate change because it is the former site of a dirty coal-fired power plant that has threatened not only the climate but the health of the surrounding community,” said President Brad Campbell of the Conservation Law Foundation, which led efforts to close the old facility, in an interview.
Biden on Wednesday proposed the first-ever 700,000-acre offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Mexico, which the White House said would enable enough new electricity to power 3 million homes. This isn’t an entirely new idea: the Department of the Interior was already testing parts of the Gulf of Mexico for wind power. Biden also directed Interior to promote offshore winds in the southern and mid-Atlantic and on the Gulf of Mexico coast of Florida.
While these steps would help bring renewable electricity to the grid, Biden is a long way from meeting its goal of reaching net-zero electricity by 2035. Fossil fuels provide 60.8 percent of US electricity today, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Achieving Biden’s zero-carbon goal will be even harder without the subsidies included in previous Democrat drafts reconciliation package. Those provisions were the most important factor needed to meet Biden’s broader climate goal, an analysis by the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer‘s office said.
While Manchin was the one who turned the Democrats’ legislative agenda on its head, they also faced staunch opposition from Republicans, who claim Biden’s plans will hurt the US economy — particularly the oil and gas industry, which has been hurting since the beginning this century is booming. The GOP also picked up on this year’s historic rise in gasoline prices, although that rise was tied to a global oil market – and a broader inflation trend that’s hardly a US-only concern.
Raging wildfires and record heat, exacerbated by climate change, are killing lives, hampering productivity and destroying property. The White House noted that over the past year, 20 extreme weather and climate-related events caused $1 billion or more in damage, for a total of $145 billion. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted 564 heat-related inspections since April as part of a new program to prevent workplace illnesses and deaths.
However, executive action alone is unlikely to get Biden on his climate goals, which include reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to half 2005 levels by the end of this decade. That failure, in turn, threatens to dampen the enthusiasm of younger and progressive voters that Democrats need in this year’s midterm election.
Climate activists and some Democratic lawmakers have urged Biden to take far bolder unilateral action — such as declaring a climate emergency that would give him sweeping powers to halt fossil fuel exports, organize clean energy production, and reorganize spending plan to strengthen climate protection.
“The President has the ability to protect our country when our national security is threatened,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told reporters this week. “And clearly, the climate crisis is a threat to national security.”
He joined eight other senators in a letter Wednesday urging Biden to take such a step.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that a climate emergency remains on the table, although no decision on it is expected this week. A senior administration official told reporters in a call Wednesday that Biden “will be very clear that he will do it since Congress will not respond to this emergency,” adding that further steps will come in the coming days and weeks will.
“This is an emergency and I will take it that way,” Biden said. “As President, I will use my executive powers to fight the climate crisis until Congress acts.”
Biden’s allies said they stand ready to give the administration space to chart its next course for executive action as they emerge from the rubble of reconciliation, where Manchin’s opposition last week scuttled efforts to push clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits through Congress bring to.
“We were all on Plan A,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “Recalibration takes a minute.”
Despite the deadlock in Congress and four years of regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration, the U.S. is actually on track to meet former President Barack Obama’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions — reducing those emissions to 26 percent below levels From 2005 to 2025, however, those reductions are nowhere steep enough to meet what climate scientists say the world must prevent the worst effects of climate change from taking root.
“If I were the president, I would ask my staff for a list of all my agencies, and I would rate them all on what parts of this challenge they could solve,” Sen said. Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) to POLITICO.
The White House has already achieved some legislative wins and taken unilateral steps to advance those goals. It is already distributing billions of dollars for clean energy and electric mobility demonstrations $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Actpaused tariffs that increased the cost of imported solar and set a government-wide requirement to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 for all electricity it buys, contracts and other services.
Biden announced two more moves on Wednesday that the White House said reflected an increased willingness to take action on climate change: It issued new guidance on a program that would allow low-income residents to more easily buy more efficient air conditioners and announced 2, $3 billion for a federal government Emergency Management Agency program that helps communities strengthen resilience to the effects of climate change.
But climate hawks have been dismayed by Biden’s previous reluctance to exercise executive powers. Biden took office to mend federal agencies that had fractured under former President Donald Trump, who actively cracked down on climate activists. Increased bureaucracy at key agencies like the EPA has resulted in slower-than-desired progress on manufacturing regulations, government officials said, but the administration now has several regulations in the pipeline for the coming year.
“There’s still a lot, a lot, a lot to do,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (DR.I.) told reporters on Monday.
Josh Siegel and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.