Climate Advocates Hoping Biden Would Declare a Climate Emergency Are Disappointed by the Small Steps He Announced on Wednesday

President Joe Biden pledged Wednesday that he would treat climate change as an emergency, but his only immediate exercise of executive authority was to move federal funding to help communities and low-income households cope with the heat.

The president promised that more steps would be announced in the coming days, but many climate action advocates voiced frustration with what they view as a halting and inadequate response to both a planetary and political crisis.

“The President has been put in the position where basically he has to put up or shut up,” said 

John Beard, founder and executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, 90 miles east of Houston. “He can no longer tell us about these things, and not take the action necessary.”

With one-third of the United States sweltering under severe heat warnings and life upended in Europe by record temperatures, Beard was among the activists urging the president to officially declare a national emergency after it became clear last week that Biden’s climate plan was stymied in Congress. 

Advocates believe a national emergency declaration, analogous to what President Donald Trump did to direct money to the building of a border wall, would allow Biden to take interventionist steps to spur a clean energy transition. White House advisers said such a move was still under consideration, but activists fear the hesitancy is a sign that the administration isn’t up to the all-out offensive on climate that they believe the crisis demands, which the president promised on the campaign trail.

Beyond the debate over the emergency declaration—which could have more symbolic import than actual impact, depending on what the president chooses to do with it—even Biden’s supporters believe that he and the Democratic Party need to make a far more robust case with voters on how American consumers and workers will benefit from the clean energy transition.

Many believe the president has been too busy playing defense against Republicans blaming the White House for high oil prices; the administration has even taken steps toward major new oil and gas leasing in federal waters in recent weeks, despite the fact that they will have little impact on the current price of oil.

Instead, climate advocates argue the president and other Democrats should be campaigning this fall on the need to wean the economy off of fossil fuels because they’re bad for the climate and vulnerable to steep and unpredictable swings in price. They say Biden should be doing more to drive home the point that the death of his climate package in Congress was due not just to one fossil fuel state Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but all 50 Senate Republicans, their GOP House colleagues and the fossil fuel industry’’s chokehold on the Republican Party. 

Although most policy analysts agree that there is much more executive action that Biden can take on climate, they believe it is doubtful that the nation can meet his ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 without Congressional action. And that means building a climate majority in Congress should also be a climate priority for the White House, climate advocates insist, despite the tough electoral landscape for Democrats in November.

“Whatever regulatory and executive actions are attempted, they are a pale substitute for Democrats making clean energy and their consumer benefits a winning campaign issue this fall,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute.

Executive Power Focused on Responding to Heat

The White House did display some understanding of the politics by choosing for the backdrop of Biden’s speech the site of a former fossil fuel plant in Massachusetts that is being converted into the state’s first manufacturing hub for offshore wind energy components. The Brayton Point power station on Mount Hope Bay near the Rhode Island border was the largest remaining coal power plant in New England when it closed on June 1, 2017—the same day that President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Early this year, a deal was struck to revive the site as a manufacturing facility for the subsea transmission cables needed for the offshore wind projects that the Biden administration approved starting soon after taking office. The plant is expected to employ 250 workers, as many as worked at the coal plant. Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office.

“Today Brayton Point is on the frontier of clean energy in America,” Biden said. “This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because we believed and invested in America’s innovation and ingenuity.”

“We all have a duty right now to our economy, to our competitiveness in the world, to the young people in this nation, and to future generations… and so does Congress,” Biden said. “Congress has failed in this duty. Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan, not one. So let me be clear, I’m going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal official government actions, through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders and regulatory powers.”

But the specifics he offered were more about responding to the impacts of climate change than reducing the cause, fossil fuel emissions: $2.3 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help communities increase resilience to heat waves, drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes; increased Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement to protect workers from heat illness and injuries; and $385 million to expand access to home air conditioners and community cooling centers through the federal energy assistance program for low-income families. The one clean energy initiative Biden did announce—a draft Interior Department environmental assessment of potential offshore wind power in the Gulf of Mexico—is the start of a process that could take years.

The president emphasized that more initiatives will be announced, but many climate action advocates were looking for more.

“When you think back on Obama’s landmark climate speech on using executive powers in 2013, it launched an armada of climate initiatives,” said environmental consultant Jeremy Symons, referring to President Barack Obama’s response to Congress stalling his climate plans. “Biden’s speech was more like a row boat. I guess we tune in next week and see how serious the White House is about turning the president’s words into action.”

Alternatives to the Middle of the Road

The Senate’s most ardent climate advocates have plenty of ideas for moves Biden could be making on climate, now that he appears to have given up hope that Manchin can be persuaded to sign on to legislation. 

“President Biden is an optimist and a trusting soul and a very patient man,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a meeting with reporters early this week. “That trust has not been rewarded. I believe, I hope, that that patience is exhausted.”

Whitehouse said the White House should set a new calculation for “the social cost of carbon” —increasing it from the current $52 per ton borrowed from the Obama administration to more than $100 per ton. This would help bolster the federal government’s climate-focused decision-making on procurement, regulation, leasing, permitting and royalty rates. He said Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency should require carbon capture and storage technology at all coal and gas fired power plants—a move he believed would pass muster even under the limitations placed on EPA’s authority last month by a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees. He argued the EPA’s vehicle greenhouse gas emissions standards should be stronger and push the industry towards manufacturing 100 percent zero-emission vehicles as early as 2035.

Whitehouse also reiterated his long-standing plea for the Department of Justice to investigate the fossil fuel industry for suppressing the truth about global warming, much as the federal government pursued a racketeering investigation against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

But far from displaying the “beast mode” that Whitehouse said he would like to see from the administration, the Biden administration has sought to carve out a middle road on climate. Although it has supported clean energy like the offshore wind developments in New England, it has taken several steps in support of the fossil fuel industry, especially in the post-Ukraine war runup in oil prices—including moves contrary to the president’s campaign promise for no new development on federal lands and waters.

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Earlier this month, Biden’s Interior Department took steps toward issuing new offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet, and approving a major oil project in the Alaskan Arctic. Final decisions for each will not come until after public comment periods, and administration officials have indicated they could still curtail the developments or restrict them entirely.

The oil industry and Republicans have argued that the Biden administration is legally required to continue leasing, and they point to a ruling last year by a federal judge in Louisiana, who struck down a pause on leasing that Biden enacted soon after taking office. But many environmental advocates have argued that federal law allows the administration to decide against leasing offshore areas in particular, and to reject the Arctic oil project, called Willow.

Political observers believe that Biden has held off making a decision while there was still a chance of winning Manchin’s vote or that of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an ardent advocate of the Willow project. But these and other fossil fuel projects, like proposals for new natural gas export terminals on the Gulf Coast and pipelines across the country, have caused deep disappointment among many in the climate movement.

“The White House is dangerously misreading the political tea leaves if they think they can blame Congress or the Supreme Court for lack of action on climate change, without looking at the drumbeat of fossil fuel projects this administration has allowed to move forward,” Symons said. “Those projects are more visible than the White House realizes to climate voters and frontline communities.

“The reason those projects are important is because they are determining where we’re going to get energy 20 and 30 years from now and they do nothing, nothing for the supply problems today,” Symons said.

Failure to Build Support Among Voters

Many climate advocates believe that Biden should be making a stronger case that the ultimate answer to inflation, high oil prices and economic pain, is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and move to clean energy. Although there is a deep partisan divide on climate, a recent Gallup poll showed Americans widely favor proposals like building more electric vehicle charging stations and providing tax credits for clean energy. Bledsoe, who served as a climate adviser in President Bill Clinton’s White House, said Biden has an opportunity to tap into that bipartisan sentiment. 

“Congressional Republicans have voted against the wishes of their own constituents,” Bledsoe said. “That’s called political opportunity.”

Bledsoe argues that regulations and executive actions by the administration are going to be insufficient. “You have to build popular support among a broad swath of Americans for the economic and climate and security benefits of the clean energy revolution,” he said. “That these technologies are going to be cheaper, cleaner, more efficient and better than fossil fuels.”

Without a robust White House-led national campaign on the benefits of clean energy, some climate advocates worry that the opportunity for effective action on carbon emissions will slip away with the November election. A recent Pew poll showed more than 60 percent of those who support Biden’s direction on climate feel that he isn’t doing enough. Frustration is especially high among youth. And a national poll released in April by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School indicates that there has been a sharp recent increase in young people believing that “political involvement rarely has tangible results” or their vote “doesn’t make a difference.”

Lauren Manus, a campaigner with the youth-led Sunrise Movement, believes that decline is directly related to dismay over Washington’s failure to act on climate, which was one of the reasons young people turned out in record numbers to elect Democrats in 2020. Before Biden’s speech, she talked about the importance of a national emergency declaration on climate.

“As we stare now in the face of an existential midterm election, this declaration will either show young people that Biden gives a damn about our futures,” she said, “or be a further slap in the face for a generation that is feeling utter despair and frustration at the failure of Democratic leadership.”

Staff Writer Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

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