Biden vows to act on climate if Congress won’t

Source: By Tony Romm and Yasmeen Abutaleb, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2022

As heat waves rock the globe and Congress delays, Biden promises action in an impassioned speech. But he holds back on declaring an emergency in hopes of an 11th hour congressional deal.

President Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station on July 20 in Somerset, Mass. (Evan Vucci/AP)

SOMERSET, Mass. — President Biden, facing pressure to take stronger action on climate change as temperatures climb around the world, called the climate crisis an “emergency” and a “clear and present danger” Wednesday, vowing to use the power of the presidency to respond if Congress does not act.

Biden announced a plan to open large areas off the U.S. coast to wind farms, but he stopped short of formally declaring a climate emergency or laying out a fuller array of proposals. His climate package has suffered setbacks in Congress recently, but the White House continues to hold out hope for a last-minute deal before Biden moves ahead with a sweeping executive order.

“Let me be clear: Climate change is an emergency,” Biden said. “In the coming weeks I’m going to use my power to turn these words into formal, official government actions. When it comes to fighting climate change, I will not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

As Biden spoke, temperatures were spiking in the U.S. and around the globe, hitting 115 degrees in Texas and Oklahoma and prompting alerts in 28 states. More than 60 million Americans are expected to endure triple-digit heat over the next week, and a brutal heat dome is moving over Europe.

“We need to act — just take a look around,” Biden said. “Right now, 100 million Americans are under a heat alert. Ninety communities across America set records for high temperatures just this year, including here in New England as we speak.”

Biden stood before a former coal-fired power plant in Somerville that’s now making wind farm components, as Massachusetts and the region faced its first heat wave of the summer. He announced a limited set of new policies, including plans to direct funds to communities facing extreme heat.

Democrats have been unable to pass Biden’s broad climate package over unified Republican opposition in the Senate, despite appearing close on several occasions. The last setback came last week when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told party leaders he was not ready to support billions of dollars in new climate spending.

In response, Biden is considering the formal declaration of a climate emergency, according to three people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to describe internal deliberations. That would give the administration more leeway to impose rules and direct funds to climate-action programs.

The centerpiece of Biden’s announcement Wednesday was a plan to open more than 700,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico to commercial offshore wind farms, beginning with an area off the coast of Galveston, Tex., and another near Lake Charles, La. Administration official estimate that wind turbines in this region could power more than 3 million homes.

The president also said he was directing the Interior Department to pursue wind development off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, rescinding an executive order that former president Donald Trump signed in 2020. Trump’s order banned all offshore energy development, including oil and wind power lease sales, in the southeast Atlantic.

Biden’s moves are part of the administration’s plan to generate 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by the end of the decade — enough to power more than 10 million American homes and cut 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

To accomplish that, the administration is trying to speed permitting for projects off the East Coast and increase federal investments in research and development. But it’s unclear whether the goal is still viable without the renewable energy tax credits that Democrats had hoped to pass this year.

Biden also announced that he would double the funding for a climate resilience program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, bringing its budget to $2.3 billion. The FEMA-run program began during the Trump administration as a way to protect states, cities and tribes from climate disasters before they strike. It covers most of the cost of building sea walls, relocating vital infrastructure, establishing cooling centers and similar projects.

BRIC is highly popular, and the demand has far surpassed its limited funding. Even the additional funding Biden announced Wednesday may fall short; according to the Congressional Research Service, states and tribes vying for BRIC funding requested more than $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2020.

Two of the people familiar with the president’s thinking said they expect additional climate-related announcements in the weeks ahead. But any new directives, even taken together, are likely to have a far narrower scope than the $500 billion that Democrats initially sought as part of their broader Build Back Better Act.

That sum would have been historic, as Democratic lawmakers looked to leverage their rare control of the House, Senate and White House to secure more than the United States has ever spent in a single burst to protect the environment. Opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) doomed the Build Back Better package, and Democrats are now trying to enact parts of it in smaller pieces, including the climate provisions.

With the Senate divided 50-50 between the parties, and operatives of both parties expecting Democrats to lose their narrow House majority in the upcoming midterm elections, many Democrats and climate activists fear that the window is rapidly closing to enact meaningful climate legislation.

That has left Biden in a political bind, even as the urgency of combating climate change escalates. Climate activists, impatient with what they see as Manchin’s vague and ever-changing positions, want the president to act forcefully and quickly by taking unilateral presidential action.

But Manchin has signaled he does not want Biden to issue a sweeping executive order, and some in the White House think it’s worth courting him a little longer on legislation, which would be far more powerful and longer-lasting than a presidential order.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a strong supporter of climate action, said he recognizes the balance Biden is trying to strike.

“Obviously, we want to encourage the president to use whatever executive powers that the commander in chief has in order to advance this goal — while still leaving the door open to negotiate a legislative result,” Markey said.

But Democrats face a loudly ticking clock, with limited time remaining to use the parliamentary process known as reconciliation that allows them to sidestep a Republican filibuster.

Manchin on Friday said he might be open to reconsidering his stance if the economy shows signs of improvement next month. He has cited soaring inflation as a major reason for his opposition to billions in new funding for climate programs, and the White House hopes inflation will slow in the coming month.

But while Biden is hoping to unify all 50 Democratic senators around climate action, he also took aim at Republicans who often oppose proposals to cut greenhouse emissions or boost alternative power sources.

“We need all governors and mayors. … Stand up and be part of the solution. Don’t be a roadblock,” Biden said, adding: “Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan. Not one.”