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Biden announces plans to deal with climate ‘emergency’

July 20, 2022 Updated Wed., July 20, 2022 at 8:36 p.m.

By Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs New York Times

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he would expand existing federal programs to help Americans cope with the extreme heat wrought by climate change, even as he faces intensifying pressure to take aggressive action to cut the fossil fuel emissions that are dangerously warming the planet.

The measures fell short of the types of executive action an increasing number of Democrats have called on Biden to take in the wake of last week’s decision by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., to walk away from clean energy legislation in the Senate. That decision effectively doomed the centerpiece of Biden’s climate change agenda, leaving Democrats and Biden searching for other ways to achieve their goals.

Manchin’s move followed a June decision by the Supreme Court to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate-warming pollution from power plants, dealing a blow to another tool that Biden had hoped to use.

Speaking at a shuttered coal plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, that is being converted into a facility to make wind power components, Biden insisted that even after the two cornerstones of his climate agenda had crashed and burned, he would use executive authority to rein in heat-trapping fossil fuels.

“Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world,” Biden said. His comments came as sweltering heat disrupted transportation networks in the United Kingdom, melted the roofs of factories in China and scorched the South and West of the United States. Noting the lack of Republican support for his climate proposals, Biden said, “This is an emergency, an emergency, and I will look at it that way.”

Still, the actions Biden announced Wednesday will do next to nothing to help the United States significantly cut its emissions. Instead, the president’s moves mainly acknowledge that the nation is already in the grips of the disastrous impact of climate change and seek to lessen its impact on households and communities.

He announced the allocation of $2.3 billion from an existing Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help communities, particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods, build structures and programs to withstand the severe heat, storms, fires and floods that climate change has already started to bring.

Separately, he announced the expansion of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which has historically been used to help people pay to heat their homes in winter. The program will now also be used to help pay for people to cool their homes in summer, and to build community cooling centers.

Biden also directed the Interior Department to open the door to building offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico, after moves in the past year to expand wind development off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

“It was just important for the president to get his arms around the various threads of work that we can put together and lay them out in a way that he’s comfortable with,” Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, told reporters en route to the event.

The modest rollout comes as Biden faces growing calls from members of his own party to declare a national climate emergency, which would give him the ability to halt new federal oil drilling and ramp up wind, solar and other clean energy projects. Before Biden spoke Wednesday, a group standing outside of the Somerset facility greeted the president with a banner stating, “Declare National Climate Emergency.”

John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, said that Biden is “very close” to taking that step and that the debate within the administration is over when the declaration should be announced and how it should be deployed, rather than if it should be done.

“The president has to decide the timing of that,” Kerry said. “It’s a matter of timing.” After the Massachusetts event, Biden told reporters he had not yet declared the emergency because he was still “running the traps on the authority that I do have,” adding that he “will make a decision on that soon.”

Although Biden stopped short of the move Wednesday, the White House appeared to be testing the waters by repeatedly referring to climate change as an “emergency” in a fact sheet and in the president’s remarks.

But White House officials are still wary of how forcefully to deploy a formal climate emergency declaration: The actions it could unleash would almost certainly result in lawsuits by Republican states, which could ultimately derail them.

Biden’s slow rollout of new climate regulations on power plants and automobiles has also fueled frustration among many in the Democratic base who say the tumultuous state of the nation requires urgency. But with the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, soaring inflation and now failed climate legislation, Biden has mostly urged Congress to act and Americans to vote while avoiding sweeping executive action that his administration fears could get tied up in the courts.

The combination of inaction in Congress and increasing number of crises has put Biden in a political bind just months before the midterm elections. The possibility that Democrats could cede power to Republicans has added urgency to the need to pass legislation quickly.

“There were very high expectations around a pretty high number of issues from climate to democracy and the hopes of having a FDR-type climate legacy have been replaced with the reversing of 50-year-old rights in this country young women are supposed to have,” said Sean McElwee, the founding executive director of Data for Progress, a liberal policy and polling organization. “I do think that’s demoralizing and maybe expectations were too high.”

Over the past year, Biden has directed the EPA to create new regulations to cut emissions from the nation’s three largest sources of planet-warming pollution: cars, power plants and oil and gas wells. Combined, those rules could take a significant bite out of the nation’s carbon pollution, experts said, assuming they stand up to inevitable lawsuits from Republican states. But the rules are not expected to be completed until 2023 or 2024 – and their ambition could still be watered down in response to political objections from automakers, union workers and swing state voters.

“The unsexy reality is that with these tools, we will make some progress, and it will not be as much as Biden hoped for,” said Jody Freeman, an environmental law professor at Harvard University who advised the Obama White House on climate policy. “But making some progress is better than making no progress – and over time these rules could unlock new technologies and gains that we can’t anticipate down the road.”

Some Democrats see the slow pace and low profile of the rule-making as somewhat of a concession to Manchin, a coal state senator who has opposed many EPA rules. The White House is still holding out hope that Manchin will come back to the table in the fall to negotiate some portion of a climate change bill.

“I do not know what Congress is anticipating now or any one senator,” McCarthy said. “But the idea that the president is initiating here is to acknowledge the challenge.”

Absent congressional action to cut greenhouse gases, it is all but mathematically impossible for Biden to reach the goal he pledged for the United States to cut its planet-warming emissions in half by the end of the decade. Scientists say the United States must curtail that much pollution to do its share to prevent the warming of the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial times. That is the threshold past which scientists say the world will not be able to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of a warming planet – deadly heat waves, widespread wildfires, devastating storms, floods and droughts. The planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius in that time.

“All we’ve seen are a handful of executive actions and the slow death of climate legislation in Congress,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group, said in a statement. “Young people are tired of receiving scraps from our government.”

Kerry also emphasized the dire global consequences of the inability to pass climate legislation in the United States.

“You see the impacts in Europe with the fires, houses burning, runways melting, railroad trains that can’t move fast because the warming of the metal,” Kerry said. Greenhouse gas emissions will not stop spewing into the atmosphere “just because people can’t get their act together and get something done.”

Kerry said the struggle to enact Biden’s once-ambitious proposals is already causing concern on the international stage.

In Berlin earlier this week for a climate conference, Kerry said he was approached by a Chinese negotiator who asked him about the impact of the recent Supreme Court EPA case. Others, he said, asked if Biden would be able to live up to his pledge to cut U.S. emissions roughly in half.

“It’s very interesting when you hear people in other countries asking you whether or not you can meet your goals,” Kerry said, adding that he worries other countries could use Congress’ inaction as an excuse not to reduce emissions.

Resistance to tackling climate change, Kerry said, also “underscores the narrative” among some critics that the United States is a nation in decline.

“It is a hard argument to counter when you don’t pass legislation,” he said.

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