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Biden vows to act on climate if Congress won’t

As heat waves rock the globe and Congress fails to act, Biden promises action in an impassioned speech. But he holds back on declaring an emergency in hopes of an 11th hour congressional deal.

President Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station on July 20 in Somerset, Mass. (Evan Vucci/AP)

SOMERSET, Mass. — President Biden, facing pressure to take stronger action on climate change as temperatures climb around the world, called the climate crisis an “emergency” and a “clear and present danger” Wednesday, vowing to use the power of the presidency to respond if Congress fails to act.

Biden announced a plan to open large areas off the U.S. coast to wind farms, but he stopped short of formally declaring a climate emergency or laying out a fuller array of proposals. His climate package has suffered setbacks in Congress recently, but the White House continues to hold out hope for a last-minute deal before Biden moves ahead with a sweeping executive order.

“Let me be clear: Climate change is an emergency,” Biden said. “In the coming weeks, I’m going to use my power to turn these words into formal, official government actions. When it comes to fighting climate change, I will not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

As Biden spoke, temperatures were spiking in the U.S. and around the globe, hitting 115 degrees in Texas and Oklahoma and prompting alerts in 28 states, providing a scorching backdrop to his comments. More than 60 million Americans are expected to endure triple-digit heat over the next week, and a brutal heat dome is moving over Europe.

“We need to act — just take a look around,” Biden said. “Right now, 100 million Americans are under a heat alert. Ninety communities across America set records for high temperatures just this year, including here in New England as we speak.”

Europe's brutal heat dome shifts east

Biden delivered his comments in front of the Brayton Point plant in Somerville, which once burned coal but is now making wind farm components, as Massachusetts faced its first heat wave of the summer. He announced a limited set of new policies, including plans to direct funds to communities facing extreme heat.

Many climate activists made clear they felt Biden’s actions fell far short of what is needed in the face of an increasingly dire threat to the planet. They blamed congressional Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has so far declined to back the Democrats’ climate package — but also said Biden should do more.

“We cannot afford any more delay on meaningful climate action. The climate crisis isn’t on our doorstep, it’s blown the door clear off,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. “President Biden must exercise his authority by using the full power of the federal government to take swift, specific, and significant actions that treat climate change as the crisis it is.”

Democrats have been unable to pass Biden’s broad climate package over unified Republican opposition in the Senate, despite appearing close on several occasions. The most recent setback came last week when Manchin told party leaders he was not ready to support billions of dollars in new climate spending out of fear that it would contribute to soaring prices.

In response, Biden is considering the formal declaration of a climate emergency, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. That would give the administration more leeway to impose rules and direct funds to climate-action programs.

On Wednesday, the centerpiece of Biden’s announcement was a plan to open more than 700,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico to commercial offshore wind farms, beginning with an area off the coast of Galveston, Tex., and another near Lake Charles, La. Administration officials estimate that wind turbines in this region could power more than 3 million homes.

The president also said he was directing the Interior Department to pursue wind development off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, rescinding an executive order that President Donald Trump signed in 2020. Trump’s order banned all offshore energy development, including oil- and wind-power lease sales, in the southeast Atlantic.

Biden’s moves are part of a plan to generate 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by the end of the decade, enough to power 10 million homes and cut 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But it’s unclear whether the goal is still viable without the renewable energy tax credits that Democrats had hoped to pass this year.

Biden also announced Wednesday that he would double the funding for a climate resilience program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, bringing its budget to $2.3 billion. The program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency began during the Trump administration as a way to protect localities from climate disasters, covering projects like building sea walls, relocating vital infrastructure and opening cooling centers.

BRIC is highly popular, and the demand has far surpassed the program’s limited funding. Even the additional funding that Biden announced Wednesday may fall short; according to the Congressional Research Service, states and tribes vying for BRIC funding requested more than $3.6 billion in fiscal 2020.

Two of the people familiar with the president’s thinking said they expect additional climate-related announcements in the weeks ahead. But any new presidential directives are likely to have a far narrower scope than the $500 billion that Democrats initially sought as part of their broader Build Back Better social spending plan.

That sum would have been historic, as Democratic lawmakers looked to leverage their rare control of the House, Senate and White House to secure more than the United States has ever spent in a single burst to protect the environment. Opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) doomed the Build Back Better package, however, and Democrats are now trying to enact parts of it in smaller pieces, including the climate provisions.

“It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger,” Biden said Wednesday of the climate crisis. “The health of our citizens and our communities is literally at stake.”

With operatives of both parties expecting Democrats to lose their narrow House majority in the upcoming midterm elections, many climate activists fear the window is rapidly closing to enact meaningful legislation. Adding to their frustration, the Supreme Court last month sharply cut back the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate the carbon output of existing power plants.

Against that backdrop, some climate activists felt Biden’s message Wednesday showed a distinct lack of urgency. Impatient with what they see as Manchin’s vague and ever-changing positions, they want the president to act forcefully and quickly by taking unilateral presidential action, including the declaration of a climate emergency.

“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. “Saying we’re in a climate emergency and declaring one under the law are totally different things.”

Others viewed Biden’s posture as an important first step.

“The president is taking urgently needed action to protect our workers and communities from the mounting dangers and rising costs of the widening climate crisis,” said John Bowman, managing director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But he added, “What’s important now is to build on this momentum with climate action that meets the moment.”

Industry groups took a different view. Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy companies, applauded Biden’s moves to open up wind farms, but said the United States needs an “all of the above” approach, including the resumption of offshore oil and gas leasing.

The passions of the Democratic base, juxtaposed with Manchin’s reservations, are leaving Biden in a familiar political bind.

Manchin has signaled that he does not want Biden to issue a sweeping executive order, and some in the White House think it’s worth waiting a little longer to see if he can be persuaded to sign onto climate legislation in Congress, which would be far more powerful and long-lasting than even the most sweeping presidential order.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a strong supporter of climate action, said he recognizes the balance that Biden is trying to strike.

“Obviously, we want to encourage the president to use whatever executive powers that the commander in chief has in order to advance this goal — while still leaving the door open to negotiate a legislative result,” Markey said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R-R.I.) added, “As the president made clear today, significantly more executive action is needed and we have no time to waste.”

Democrats face a loudly ticking clock, with limited time remaining to use the parliamentary process known as reconciliation that allows them to sidestep a Republican filibuster. With the Senate divided 50-50 between the parties and Vice President Harris casting tiebreaking votes, Democratic leaders have no margin for error, a fact that is giving Manchin decisive influence over any climate bill.

Manchin on Friday said he might be open to reconsidering his opposition if the economy shows signs of improvement next month. He has cited persistent inflation as a major reason for his opposition to spending billions in new funding on climate programs, and the White House hopes the next inflation report will show a considerable slowing of price increases.

While Biden is pressing to unify all 50 Democratic senators around climate action, he also took aim Wednesday at Republicans who uniformly oppose his climate bill and often broadly oppose proposals to cut greenhouse emissions.

“We need all governors and mayors. … Stand up and be part of the solution. Don’t be a roadblock,” Biden said, adding: “Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan. Not one.”

Romm and Phillips reported from Washington.