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The Climate 202

Here's what could happen if Biden declares a climate emergency

The Climate 202

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Good morning! Dino Grandoni, a national climate reporter at The Washington Post, wrote the top of today’s Climate 202. Tips, comments, anyone miss me? Let me know: dino.grandoni@washpost.com. 

👀 On today's agenda: President Biden will travel to Somerset, Mass., to deliver remarks about tackling the climate crisis and boosting clean energy jobs, but he is not expected to issue an emergency declaration at that time. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has been among the most outspoken lawmakers in support of climate policy since Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) torpedoed the deal last week. More on that below. But first:

Here's what could happen if Biden declares a climate emergency

Climate change, as many activists and politicians say, is an emergency. President Biden may soon make that official.

Biden is weighing declaring a national climate emergency, an extraordinary move that would allow the president to tap new powers and pots of money in his administration’s efforts to curb climate-warming emissions.

The potential move may help Biden signal to other world leaders that he is still serious about climate change, even as his legislative agenda to invest in clean energy falls apart.

On Wednesday, some senators in the Democratic caucus urged Biden to make that declaration sooner rather than later.

  • “For too long, we have been waiting for a single piece of legislation, and a single Senate vote, to take bold action on our climate crisis,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a letter to Biden. “As a result, we urge you to put us on an emergency footing and aggressively use your executive powers to address the climate crisis.”

But right now, it’s unclear when Biden might make such a declaration — or what exactly invoking those emergency powers will entail. Biden is considering making the announcement “in the coming weeks,” according to my colleagues Tony Romm, Jeff Stein and Ashley Parker. But he will hold off on doing so during a major climate speech scheduled for Wednesday in Massachusetts.

And as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday:

Yet the fact that Biden seems to be considering the move has many Democratic lawmakers and grass-roots activists excited.

“We need this administration to do all the things, take all the steps,” said Moira Birss, climate and finance director at Amazon Watch, one of several green groups asking for an emergency declaration.

Turning a crisis into an opportunity

For months, many of Biden’s allies have agitated for the president to tap a variety of long-standing emergency authorities under the National Emergencies Act and other laws to tackle what they see as a genuine crisis for the planet.

  • The group of Democratic senators, for instance, asked Biden on Tuesday to use the act to redirect spending on military bases to build renewable energy and finance distributed energy projects.
  • In addition to Merkley and Sanders, seven Democratic senators signed on to the letter: Markey, Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.).

And in February, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a report urging Biden to go even further.

  • Among the emergency authorities the green group wants Biden to consider are halting crude oil exports, ending offshore drilling and stopping hundreds of billions of dollars of private investment in fossil fuel projects abroad.
  • “It will be a huge, significant change to how he's approached climate change so far,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney at the center.

Biden has already turned to one Cold War-era emergency law to address today’s changing climate. Over the past year, the president has invoked the Defense Production Act to boost lithium mining for electric vehicles and to ramp up domestic manufacturing of solar panel parts and other clean energy equipment.

The Manchin factor

Biden’s consideration of invoking emergency powers comes as his climate agenda falters in Congress.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a conservative Democrat, told party leaders last week that after months of negotiations, he cannot support a sprawling economic package that includes billions of dollars for clean energy right now.

Biden once appeared willing to go easy with executive action on climate change to secure Manchin’s vote. With Republicans unwilling to back his climate agenda, Biden needed the coal-state senator’s support to secure passage.

Now with a deal all but dead, Biden is freer to take more aggressive executive action.

But Paul Bledsoe, once a climate adviser in the Clinton administration, is skeptical that an emergency declaration can stand up to court scrutiny. Last month, conservatives on the Supreme Court curtailed the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide from power plants.

“The only sure way to meet ambitious U.S. climate goals is to unleash tens of billions of dollars in private sector investment--which is precisely what pending clean energy tax incentives would do,” he said.

Stage set by Trump?

Odd as it sounds, Donald Trump helped pave the way for a more expansive view of how emergency powers can be used by the White House.

The Republican former president declared a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019 in a bid to build his wall. At the time, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned that Trump’s move set a bad precedent by enabling a Democrat to do something similar.

“If today the national emergency is border security … tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change,” he said on CNBC in 2019. 

On the Hill

Democrats demand action on global warming after Manchin buries talks

While the president weighs declaring a national climate emergency, Democrats on Capitol Hill on Tuesday demanded an aggressive response to global warming, Tony Romm, Jeff Stein and Ashley Parker report for The Washington Post. 

The refreshed calls for action come after Manchin stalled negotiations over an ambitious climate spending deal and as a punishing heat wave descends on the central United States. 

“Right now you’ve got Europe on fire, record temperatures in Great Britain. … They’re trying to have the Tour de France and they’re having problems keeping enough water to keep people going,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “And we’re here talking about not doing climate before the end of this session. I think that’s an incredible mistake.”

Manchin later expressed to reporters that he is still open to tackling climate change. When asked about the possibility of a climate emergency declaration, Manchin said “let's see what the Congress does. The Congress needs to act.”

The lawmaker skipped a lunch Tuesday for Democratic senators, where one member of his caucus delivered an impassioned plea for an aggressive response to global warming. 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Democrats will accept Manchin’s offer on drug prescription prices and Affordable Care Act subsidies, moving forward with a smaller reconciliation bill for now while leadership continues to push for the climate measures.

Buttigieg argues with GOP lawmakers over electric vehicles

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday defended President Biden’s goal of having 50 percent of vehicles on the market be electric by 2030 while House Republicans criticized the proposal, saying it would increase already high energy costs, Zach Wendling reports for the Hill.

Buttigieg’s remarks came during a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing focused on infrastructure investments and job creation. Responding to doubt from the GOP, Buttigieg touted the goal for its potential to bring cost-saving technology to vulnerable communities and help combat climate change. 

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said he was “alarmed” at what he called “the naivete” in the administration's target and its potential to increase the financial burden on the middle class, questioning whether connecting more electric vehicle chargers to the grid would just increase the strain. 

“Look, the fact that people who have electric vehicles are going to use more electricity can’t be a reason to give up,” Buttigieg responded. “The idea that America is inferior to the other countries that have figured this out just doesn’t sit well with us, and that’s why we’re investing in a better grid.”

Pressure points

As heat waves hit U.S. and Europe, leaders split on climate change

Severe heat waves are baking parts of the United States and setting records across the Atlantic, but while Europeans talk of tackling the climate crisis, leaders in Oklahoma, Texas and South Dakota have not wavered on their politics, Darryl Fears and Andrea Eger report for The Post. 

“This is the consequence of climate change,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said Monday in a tweet. “Tackling the climate emergency must be at the top of the to-do list for the next Prime Minister.” 

In the Southwestern region of the United States, residents are cranking up their air conditioners, adding pressure on the power grid, and farmers are using a lot of water at a time when the region could slide into drought. Conservative politicians leading those states are unlikely to propose conservation or a plan to adapt because they are reluctant to link the sweltering conditions to climate change. 

The contradictory reactions to the extremely hot weather could have major implications for the planet as the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters struggle to take swift action to meet climate pledges as the war in Ukraine tightens its grip on the energy market, prompting some governments to reconsider the phaseout of fossil fuels. 

The dangerous heat also comes as President Biden is struggling to advance his bold environmental agenda in the face of intense opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

International climate

EU to release winter energy plan over fears of Russian gas cutoff

"The European Union proposed a plan for countries to reduce demand for natural gas — as officials warned that Russia was ‘likely’ to cutoff the flow to Europe," our colleagues Quentin Ariès and Ellen Francis report. 

“Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon. And therefore, in any event, whether it is partial, major cut off of Russian, or total cut off of Russian gas, Europe needs to be ready,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said a news conference.

The outlined proposal asks member states to curb consumption by 15 percent from Aug. 1 to March 1, switch from gas to alternative fuels, incentivizes industries to reduce consumption and outlines ways for consumers to save on heating and cooling.

In the atmosphere

Viral

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