As people across four continents were vividly reminded this week, the world is facing a climate crisis. A blistering heat wave in Europe forced thousands in Spain and France to flee dramatic wildfires, while Britain recorded its hottest day since at least the 1850s on Tuesday. Parts of Asia and Africa also faced scorching temperatures, and this week more than 100 million U.S. residents were living under heat warnings or advisories. That context lent urgency to President Biden’s remarks on climate change Wednesday, delivered from a former coal-powered electricity plant in Massachusetts that now produces cables used for wind energy.
In his speech, Mr. Biden called climate change “a clear and present danger.” He announced more funding to bolster climate resilience and defray the costs of cooling equipment in areas facing extreme heat, and he proposed opening large areas in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore wind energy production. More executive actions are expected in the coming days.
Democrats had hoped to pass a large chunk of their climate agenda as part of a broader economic package. But those plans were thwarted when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced he could not currently support a reconciliation bill containing climate spending and tax increases, citing inflation. Mr. Biden responded wisely, telling Democrats to move forward on policies Mr. Manchin did support — extending subsidies on Affordable Care Act health exchanges and reforming prescription drug pricing. That left the president to try to address climate change via executive action.
Mr. Biden stopped short of formally declaring a national climate emergency in his remarks. Yet White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday it was still on the table in the weeks ahead. That would be a dubious move. A national emergency declaration would unlock 136 statutory powers, only a few of which relate to climate. It would allow the administration to restrict drilling on federal lands and end crude oil exports, but those steps would not enable Mr. Biden to efficiently reach his climate goals and could harm U.S. industries. It could also grant the president certain powers to support and redirect spending to renewable-energy production.
Mr. Biden has not exhausted all the other tools in his arsenal. Even though the Supreme Court sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions last month, the EPA still has authority to regulate traditional ambient air pollutants, which could have the byproduct of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
More broadly, emergency powers were never meant to address long-standing policy priorities. Presidents should not use these declarations to enact their agendas whenever they are impeded by Congress, whether it is President Donald Trump invoking a national emergency over the border or Mr. Biden considering one for climate.
The extreme climate events of the past week are a warning that there is no time to waste — neither on inaction nor on performative policies that will not produce the scale of change needed. Mr. Biden should remember that as he continues to craft his climate response.
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