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Biden unveils new executive actions to combat climate change

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In the wake of a setback from his legislative agenda to combat climate change, President Biden on Wednesday announced a set of new actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to the U.S. and the world,” Biden said at a former coal-fired power plant in Somerset, Mass. The Brayton Point plant is being renovated into a substation for the transmission of offshore wind power and a manufacturing plant for the underwater cables needed to bring offshore wind power to customers.

“Since Congress is not acting as it should,” Biden added, “in the coming days my administration will announce the executive actions we have developed.”

To coincide with the speech, the White House released a fact sheet with two new measures to adapt to climate change. FEMA is announcing $2.3 billion in funding to “help communities increase resilience to heat waves, drought, wildfires, flood, hurricanes, and other hazards,” and the Department of Health and Human Services is issuing guidance to allow the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to be used by local governments for home air-conditioning equipment, community cooling centers and more.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy in Somerset, Mass., on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Biden administration simultaneously unveiled an effort to boost clean energy, as the Department of the Interior is proposing a 700,000-acre area for the development of offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Mexico.

The moves come in response to a series of recent defeats for Biden’s efforts to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from the coal- and gas-heavy state of West Virginia, announced that he would not vote for a budget reconciliation bill that contained new spending to subsidize clean energy and electric vehicles. The House of Representatives passed a bill last fall including that and other Democratic domestic priorities, such as prescription drug pricing reform. Due to unified Republican opposition in the closely divided Senate, Manchin’s stance dooms the bill, at least for the time being. (Manchin later said he would be open to reconsidering his opposition in September, if next month’s economic indicators show inflation easing.)

After over a year of negotiations with Manchin, during which time the Biden administration has treaded lightly on restricting fossil fuel production in order to avoid upsetting the senator, the White House has apparently pivoted to deploying the full force of the executive branch. Biden telegraphed that intention in a statement last week: “If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” he said. His speech on Wednesday marked the beginning of that effort.

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Activists are calling on the president to declare climate change a national emergency in order to reduce fossil fuel use and increase clean energy capacity. The White House is reportedly considering the move.

Although he has not yet issued an official emergency declaration, Biden has referred to climate change as an emergency. He hinted on Wednesday that a formal declaration may be coming.

“Let me be clear, climate change is an emergency,” he said. “And in the coming weeks, I will use my power as president to turn these words into formal, official government action, through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders and regulatory powers that a president possesses.”

Biden’s speech comes at a time when climate change is wreaking havoc in the United States and around the world. Much of Europe is suffering through an intense heat wave, with new high temperature records upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit being set across the continent. Thousands of people have died as a result. Meanwhile, the western U.S. is baking, with 115 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in Texas and Oklahoma this week. About 211 million Americans are experiencing upwards of 90-degree weather on Wednesday. Biden nodded to that, noting that “100 million Americans are under heat alert today.”

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change and renewable energy at the site of the former Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, U.S. July 20, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Biden at the site of the former Brayton Point power station in Somerset, Mass. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden noted some of the results of climate disruption, including $145 billion last year in the U.S. alone.

“Our national security is at stake as well: Extreme weather is already damaging our military installations in the U.S.,” he said.

As heat causes more evaporation, persistent drought conditions are plaguing the West. Inland waterways, including the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River, are drying out.

This spring also saw a heat dome — a climate-change-related phenomenon — bring sweltering heat across the southern half of the country and into parts of the Upper Midwest.

Biden, as he often does, emphasized the economic opportunity presented by transitioning to clean energy such as wind and solar power, embodied in the location where he spoke — a former coal plant “so notorious for pollution it topped a list of the 'Filthy Five' most environmentally harmful plants in the state,” according to the local newspaper the Herald News. Biden pointed out that the new factory there will employ 250 people, as many as the coal plant did at its peak.

“When I think about climate change ... I think jobs,” he said.

Even though the president has an array of powers to hasten the energy transition at the margins, such as tightening regulations on the conventional pollutants caused by fossil fuel combustion, Biden’s authority was limited last month by the Supreme Court in one key respect: The court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency may not use its power under the Clean Air Act to require electric utilities to move away from fossil fuels.

States, however, have greater latitude in regulating power plants, and Biden urged governors to do everything they can to mitigate climate change.

“We all have a duty right now: to our economy, to our competitiveness in the world, to our young people ... to act boldly,” he said.

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Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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