WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced modest new steps to combat climate change and promised more robust action to come, saying, “This is an emergency and I will look at it that way.”
The president stopped short, though, of declaring a formal climate emergency, which Democrats and environmental groups have been seeking after an influential Democratic senator quashed hopes for sweeping legislation to address global warming. Biden hinted such a step could be coming.
“Let me be clear: Climate change is an emergency,'' Biden said. He pledged to use his power as president “to turn these words into formal, official government actions through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders and regulatory power that a president possesses.”
When it comes to climate change, he added, "I will not take no for an answer.''
Biden delivered his pledge at a former coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts. The former Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, is shifting to offshore wind power manufacturing, and Biden chose it as the embodiment of the transition to clean energy that he is seeking but has struggled to realize in the first 18 months of his presidency.
Executive actions announced Wednesday will bolster the domestic offshore wind industry in the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast, as well as spend $2.3 billion to help communities cope with soaring temperatures through programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.
The trip comes as historic temperatures bake Europe and the United States. Wildfires raged in Spain and France, and Britain on Tuesday shattered its record for highest temperature ever registered. At least 100 million Americans face heat advisories in the next few days as cities around the U.S. sweat through more intense and longer-lasting heat waves that scientists blame on global warming.
Calls for a national emergency declaration to address the climate crisis have been rising among activists and Democratic lawmakers after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., last week scuttled talks on a long-delayed legislative package.
Biden said Wednesday the option remains under consideration. “I'm running the traps on the totality of the authority I have,” he told reporters after returning to Washington. “Unless Congress acts in the meantime, I can do more'' on climate, he said. "Because not enough is being done now.''
Biden said he's been told that some of his legislative proposal on climate remains "in play,'' but he acknowledged he has not spoken to Manchin.
Gina McCarthy, Biden's climate adviser, said Biden is not “shying away” from treating climate as an emergency. "The president wants to make sure that we're doing it right, that we're laying it out, and that we have the time we need to get this worked out,'' she told reporters on Air Force One.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who attended Wednesday's event, said he was “confident that the president is ultimately ready to do whatever it takes in order to deal with this crisis."
Environmental groups were less hopeful. “The world’s burning up from California to Croatia, and right now Biden’s fighting fire with the trickle from a garden hose,” said Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
An emergency declaration on climate would allow Biden to redirect federal resources to bolster renewable energy programs that would help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The declaration also could be used as a legal basis to block oil and gas drilling or other projects, although such actions would likely be challenged in court by energy companies or Republican-led states.
Such a declaration would be similar to the one issued by Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who declared a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border when lawmakers refused to allocate money for that effort. A federal appeals court later ruled Trump's action was illegal.
Some legal scholars said an emergency order on climate could face a similar fate. The Supreme Court last month limited the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.
Declaring a climate emergency "is a way to get around Congress and specifically Joe Manchin. That's not what emergency powers are for,'' said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Biden pledged last week to take significant executive actions on climate after months-long discussions between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., came to a standstill. The West Virginia senator cited stubbornly high inflation as the reason for his hesitation, although he has long protected energy interests in his coal- and gas-producing state.
For now, Manchin has said he will only agree to a limited legislative deal on health care and prescription drugs. The White House has indicated it wants Congress to take that deal, and Biden will address the climate issue on his own.
Biden visited the dusty grounds of the former Brayton Point power plant, which closed in 2017 after burning coal for more than five decades. The plant will now make subsea transmission cables to bring power generated by offshore wind to the electrical grid.
A few dozen people listened in the blazing sun as Biden spoke, including McCarthy, members of Congress and Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator.
A new report says the U.S. and other major carbon-polluting nations are falling short on pledges to fight climate change. Among the 10 biggest carbon emitters, only the European Union has enacted polices close to or consistent with international goals to limit warming to just a few more tenths of a degree Celsius, scientists and experts say.
Daly reported from Washington.