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Falling short of declaring climate emergency, Biden takes heat for $2.3B plan to tackle warming

“Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation,” President Joe Biden said on Wednesday as he unveiled his plan for dealing with the U.S. climate crisis. President Biden spoke in Massachusetts as a heatwave brings extreme weather across America. "The health of our citizens and our communities is... at stake. So we have to act,” he said. Biden plans to expand existing federal programs to help Americans cope with climate change’s extreme heat. $2.3 billion worth of funding will go to expanding flood control, shoring up utilities, retrofitting buildings, and helping families pay for heating and cooling costs.

Still, he stopped short of declaring an official “climate emergency,” which according to the New York Times, would have given him greater power. The measures, while vital, pale in comparison to the types of executive action an increasing number of Democrats have urged Biden to take in the wake of last week’s decision by Senator Joe Manchin to reject the latest Democratic measures for climate action.

Senator Manchin’s move is in line with the Supreme Court’s June decision to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate-warming pollution from power plants, extensively interfering with Biden’s plan to slash pollution.

President Biden spoke in Somerset, a town in Massachusetts, outside of a former coal-fired power plant, undergoing a conversion to produce wind power components instead of greenhouse gasses.

The plant was closed on June 1, 2017, the same day then President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Early this year a deal was struck to resurrect the site manufacturing facility for the subsea transmission cables needed for the offshore wind projects that the Biden administration approved starting soon after taking office and rejoining the Paris climate agreement.

There, at the fitting setting, he insisted he would use executive authority to rein in heat-trapping fossil fuels after two critical components of his climate agenda were halted.

His proposed actions mainly acknowledge that we are undergoing a crisis, and make moves to help communities, particularly those disadvantaged, deal with the increasingly harsh heat, storms, fire, and floods that climate change has already started to print.

However, as Inside Climate News, points out, they do nothing to help the United States significantly slash emissions and wean the country off of fossil fuels, a necessary step in reducing the impacts of the crisis.

Separately, Biden announced an expansion of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which has historically been used to help people pay to heat their homes in winter. Now, “for the first time ever,” it will be used to help people pay for air conditioning and build community cooling centers, as over 100 million Americans are under severe heat warnings.

President Biden also directed the Interior Department to begin building offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico. These follow a trend of moves in the past year to expand wind development off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

John F. Kerry, Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy, said in an interview with The Times that the President is “very close” to taking the step of declaring a climate emergency. The debate within the administration, Kerry said, is over when the declaration should be announced and how it should be deployed, rather than if it should be done.

“The president has to decide the timing of that,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s a matter of timing.” After the Massachusetts event, Biden told reporters was still “running the traps on the authority that I do have,” adding that he “will make a decision on that soon.”

If Biden does declare a climate emergency, the President will have the ability to halt new federal oil drilling, block crude oil exports, and ramp up wind, solar, and other clean energy projects. The latter is what Biden is most likely to use the powers for.

While Biden stopped short of declaring an official “climate emergency” on Wednesday, the White House seems to be testing the waters. In his speech, Biden referred to the present situation as an emergency, in line with language used in White House fact sheets.

However, activists and environmental groups worry that the hesitancy is a sign that Biden won’t make the moves of offensive climate legislation that the president promised on the campaign trail.

“The world’s burning up from California to Croatia, and right now Biden’s fighting fire with the trickle from a garden hose,” Jean Su, energy justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Associated Press.

Nevertheless, some Democrats remain hopeful. “[I’m] confident that the president is ultimately ready to do whatever it takes in order to deal with this crisis,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who attended Wednesday’s event.

Amid the recent EPA decision, White House officials are cautious about how forcefully to deploy a formal climate emergency declaration, wary that Republicans will use the opportunity to file lawsuits and derail any progress the administration tries to make.

The rollout of new climate regulations on power plants and automobiles has been slow over the course of Biden’s term, fueling frustration among many in the Democratic base. Coupled with the inaction of Congress and the Supreme Court’s decisions on both abortion and climate, Biden is feeling the heat just months before the midterm elections.

“There were very high expectations around a pretty high number of issues from climate to democracy and the hopes of having an F.D.R.-type climate legacy have been replaced with the reversing of 50-year-old rights in this country young women are supposed to have,” said Sean McElwee, the founding executive director of Data for Progress, a liberal policy, and polling organization. “I do think that’s demoralizing and maybe expectations were too high.”

Over the past year, Biden has directed the EPA to create new regulations to cut emissions from the nation’s three largest sources of planet-warming pollution: cars, power plants, and oil and gas wells.

Combined, these plans could present a significant move to slash carbon pollution, experts say, assuming they make it out of the fire of inevitable lawsuits from Republican representatives. Still, the rules are not expected to be implemented until 2023 or 2024, adding time for them to be watered down.

The inability to pass climate legislation in the United States has dire global implications, Kerry emphasized.

“You see the impacts in Europe with the fires, houses burning, runways melting, railroad trains that can’t move fast because the warming of the metal,” Mr. Kerry said. Greenhouse gas emissions will not stop spewing into the atmosphere “just because people can’t get their act together and get something done.”

The struggle to enact legislation regarding the climate emergency is causing concern on the international stage, causing skepticism if Biden can live up to his pledge to cut U.S. emissions roughly in half by 2030 without Congressional action.

The thinking follows trends presented by a new report showing the United States and other nations struggling to keep up with their emission targets. Resistance to tackling climate change, Kerry said, “underscores the narrative” among some critics that the United States is a nation in decline.

“It is a hard argument to counter when you don’t pass legislation,” he said.

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