Stymied by Congress, Biden feels heat to act on climate while activists hold out for more

·6 min read

Saying if Congress wouldn't act then he would, President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled plans to fight climate change with executive actions – none of which went as far as many environmental groups had hoped.

Declaring climate change "an emergency" without declaring an official state of emergency, Biden said in the coming days and weeks he would use his power as president to issue formal government actions through proclamations, executive orders and regulatory power.

His biggest announcement: a plan to open parts of the Gulf of Mexico for the first time to offshore wind farms that could power more than 3 million homes. He also directed the Department of Interior to advance wind energy development off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina.

"It was one piece of down payment," was how Mindy Lubber, CEO of Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability nonprofit, described the announcement. "Was today enough? No, but it was a good start."

Biden also told the crowd – gathered in a former coal-fired power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, that's now used to make power cables for offshore wind farms that he'd directed his administration to clear every federal hurdle and streamline federal permitting to bring clean energy projects online immediately.

President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station on Wednesday in Somerset, Mass.
President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station on Wednesday in Somerset, Mass.

He also announced $2.3 billion in funding for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities. The BRIC program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helps communities prepare in advance for potential climate disasters such as heat waves and flooding.

Climate activists wanted more.

“With congressional action closed off, bold action from Biden is the only hope for truly lifesaving action to curb the deadly fossil fuels scorching the planet,” said Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Limited action on renewables without curbing fossil fuels is like tuning up the engine while the car barrels off a cliff.”

Frustration grows

As more than one-third of Americans suffer from a dangerous heat wave that includes heat alerts in 28 states, the frustration of climate activists is growing. More than a thousand groups have called on the president to declare a national climate emergency, an act that would unlock both financial and statutory authority the president now lacks.

"In the coming days, weeks, and months, President Biden must take bold regulatory and executive action on climate that matches the urgency of the crisis we face," said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate change advocacy group founded by former staffers of the 2020 presidential campaign of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Raad said the time for speeches was over.

"All the resilience funding in the world won't save us if we don't mitigate the mounting crisis," he said.

More: One graphic shows why Biden says executive actions on climate change are needed

Biden's efforts to address climate change were hit by a double whammy in the past three weeks. First came a ruling by the Supreme Court on June 30 limiting the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Then came last week’s announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that he won’t support legislation that included tax credits to support clean energy Democrats estimated would have reduced carbon emissions by nearly 40% by 2030. The bill would have brought an unprecedented $500 billion to bear on climate change. Manchin has said he might be open to changing his mind if the economy improves next month, leaving Democrats some hope for a deal.

But while the setbacks increased speculation that Biden might declare a climate emergency, doing so while a chance remains that rewritten legislation might still get through this year would have been a risk, said Elizabeth Losos, a biologist and environmental policy analyst at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

"Legislation would clearly be preferable," she said. "An emergency declaration is going to face legal challenges, which will slow it down. And our current Supreme Court has certainly signaled they're going to look at such things suspiciously."

That has left many climate groups, who for months have created wish lists for actions they want the administration to take, clamoring for more.

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben took to Twitter following Biden's speech.

"Mr. Biden took useful but small-bore climate actions today, including opening up new areas in the Gulf of Mexico for wind leases," McKibben said. "The bigger test: will he declare a full-on climate emergency, and do things like *stop* oil and gas leases in the Gulf?"

U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, similarly told a Yahoo Finance panel within minutes of Biden's speech that "we need to do more."

"He needs to declare a climate emergency," Khanna said. "That would give him more authority to put more funds into solar, wind, renewables. It will give him the authority to stop the permitting for projects that are going to emit tremendous amounts of CO2."

Suggestions for what the Biden administration might do under a declared emergency have included reinstating a crude oil export ban that was lifted in 2015, keeping the oil within the U.S. to help meet demand and alleviate price concerns, said Maya Golden-Krasner, a senior attorney at the Climate Law Institute of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that works to protect endangered species. That might come in conjunction with phasing out new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure projects including offshore drilling leases.

Other suggestions include regulating methane leaks from oil and gas wells, creating new rules requiring that companies disclose greenhouse gas emissions, and using federal procurement to support and drive innovation in clean energy solutions.

Energy groups also advocate for cutting or minimizing permitting times and red tape to speed up solar and wind energy developments, which the administration's offshore wind announcement acknowledged.

Some climate scientists worried if the United States is capable of taking on climate change with Congress unable to act and a Supreme Court that appears opposed to broad efforts to tame carbon emissions.

Noting the unprecedented heat wave which has killed hundreds of people in Europe, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said, "we're seeing examples all around us of things that are starting to break."

While climate change is physically solvable, he fears that may no longer be the case politically.

"Even if the executive branch takes strong action now, what happens if there's a change of administration in 2024?" he said. "Or if in two months there a challenge to Biden's efforts that makes it to this Supreme Court?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden vows executive action in climate fight amid global heat waves