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Biden mounts climate change fight in face of Congress stymied by partisan gridlock

Balking at the Senate’s failure to rally behind climate provisions of his Build Back Better plan, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he will begin issuing executive orders and proclamations in the coming days to combat the climate change emergency without the support of the legislative branch.

“When it comes to fighting climate change, I will not take no for an answer,” Biden said Wednesday, the middle of a week where broad swaths of the country and other parts of the globe are feeling firsthand the extreme weather events that have become more common and destructive in recent years.

To help the areas hit hardest by extreme heat, drought, flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes, Biden plans to earmark $2.3 billion in federal money to build U.S. infrastructure “designed to withstand the full range of disasters we’ve seen.” He said additionally that he will provide $385 million in federal funds for state programs that provide air conditioning in low-income homes and set up community-cooling centers in schools where people can get through these extreme heat crises. 

Military installations and the U.S. supply chain are not immune to disruption from extreme weather, Biden added, noting that these delays in turn trigger shortages for consumers and businesses. 

“As president I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger,” Biden said.

“Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world,” he continued.

Biden’s announcement comes six days after West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced that he wouldn’t back key climate provisions that would have provided roughly $300 billion in clean energy incentives. In Manchin’s home state, more than 20,000 people work in coal, oil and gas, and he has been a longtime defender of his state’s fossil fuel industry.

Manchin cited high inflation as his reason for not backing the climate initiatives.

With only Vice President Kamala Harris to give them a razor-thin majority in the Senate, Democrats now will have to balance Manchin’s interests to pass the bill that also expands Affordable Care Act provisions and allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Biden has indicated that he wants Congress to move forward on this front.

Nine Democratic senators pressured Biden before his speech Wednesday to use his presidential powers to declare climate change a national emergency. This week alone, more than 100 million Americans face heat advisories or warnings, with states across the country expecting temperatures in the 90s or triple digits. At the same time, Western states are facing severe drought and wildfires.

Present for Biden’s speech Wednesday in Somerset, Massachusetts, were the Bay State’s two Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren who wrote in a letter to the president joined by seven fellow Democratic senators that using the National Emergency Act “would unlock powers to rebuild a better economy with significant, concrete actions.”

“Under the NEA, you could redirect spending to build out renewable energy systems on military bases, implement large-scale clean transportation solutions and finance distributed energy projects to boost climate resiliency,” they wrote. “All of these actions would employ Americans in new and emerging industries while securing American leadership in global markets.”

Presidential powers would also allow Biden to pause oil and gas development on federal land via the Defense Production Act, which would also give him the ability to issue stricter greenhouse gas and pollution guidelines. The action would mimic how former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border after Congress refused to provide him with funding to do so.

While Biden promised tough action on climate change while running for president in 2020, pledging to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035, he’s made little headway on this front during 18 months in office. Setbacks to his goals have included an unprecedented global spike in gasoline prices driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led the White House to advocate for more domestic oil production, and the Supreme Court decision earlier this month that limited the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Biden also announced that his administration will being the process of developing wind power in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, noting his team had approved the first commercial project for offshore wind in America in 2021. He added that the Department of Labor is developing workplace standards for extreme heat, and that the agency has already completed over 500 heat-related inspections of workplaces across 43 states. 

“We’re going to make environments and where people live safer. We’re going to make the claim America safer. We have an opportunity here,” he said.

Biden’s press event was held at a coal power plant that closed in 2017 but will now operate on offshore wind farm and undersea cable manufacturing plant. The cables will tie the wind turbines to the existing power grid.

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“Manufacturing these cables will mean good paying jobs for 250 workers, as many workers as the old plant power plant had at its peak,” the president said.

For years, Biden emphasized, coal power supported the Somerset area’s economy with electricity, good jobs and local tax payments. At the same time, however, it polluted neighboring communities with toxins, smog and greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Gina McCarthy, a former regulator in Massachusetts, was telling me on the way up how folks used to get a rag out and wipe the gunk off of their cars’ windshields in the morning just to be able to drive,” Biden said of his now-climate adviser.

He wagered that no one who grew up near the coal-powered plant would support bringing the plant back, adding that people weren’t aware when coal power first became popular of how disastrous it would prove for public health or the climate.

“We have no excuse now,” he said.

Separately Friday, Biden repealed a regulation held over from the last administration that marked the last of Trump’s Endangered Species Act rollbacks.

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Screenshot via Courthouse News

President Joe Biden announces climate change initiatives at a press event at a coal power plant that closed in 2017 in Somerset, Massachusetts, that has since become an offshore wind farm and undersea cable manufacturing plant.