The Northern Hemisphere is sweltering in a miserable vision of future life seared by climate change, just at the moment when political momentum for aggressive, world-leading action by the United States has gone cold.
London was burning on Tuesday amid Britain’s highest-ever temperatures. More than 100 million Americans sweated under heat warnings. Fires raged in Texas and across the West. Parts of France, Greece and Portugal were ablaze.
Yet President Joe Biden, who came to office vowing to save the planet, finds himself in a familiar position, unable to pass laws to alleviate a crisis because of the Democrats’ tiny Senate majority, a one-man agenda-wrecker in the form of moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Republican Party denialism and a Supreme Court scornful of the real-world effects of its conservative activism.
And the President, who positioned himself as a scourge of the fossil fuels industry, is just back from a mission to persuade Saudi Arabia to pump more crude to alleviate the political pressure of high gasoline prices and inflation cooked up by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Efforts to combat global warming have long been complicated by a sense that its consequences are hypothetical and less urgent than the economic, national security and cultural controversies that often define elections. Politicians don’t tend to risk their careers for a payoff that may unfold years after they have left the stage.
There’s little sign that this is changing – especially because many Republicans, unwilling to upset their base – mock the science of climate change. But many more weeks of raging infernos and melting heat will raise the question of whether the politics of this existential question will shift.
For Biden, who’s facing slumping approval numbers even among his own base, demonstrating strong climate leadership now would help appease disillusioned Democrats ahead of the November midterms, reassure allies across the world and, potentially, help stem the crisis.
Biden in symbolic surroundings
Biden will try to move the needle when he travels to a closed-down coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts on Wednesday to renew his vow to use executive power to tackle climate change. But he’ll be chased by doubts about how far he’s willing to go, how effective reversible presidential orders can be and whether a White House already submerged in emergencies can pull off a serious climate push.
From gun control to police reform and voting rights to health care, Biden has repeatedly promised action and demanded Congress do more but has run into a brick wall. This is one reason why aggressive White House promises on climate will take some backing up.
First, the President must redefine the political argument.
Manchin cited rampant inflation as the reason why he opposed investments for a new green economy in Biden’s stalled social spending plan, after negotiations with Democratic leaders foundered yet again last week, party sources said. The West Virginia Democrat’s early warnings about the rising cost of living were accurate.
But his position is also an example of the political short-termism of the Washington debate about climate change, which is already having a devastating impact on national economics. Future national, state, local and international governments will be faced with spending trillions of dollars to adapt to new, more intense summers. Rising sea waters will threaten coastal communities and more frequent, more intense storms will exert a heavy financial cost.
And the human impact of extreme heat is only likely to get worse, putting more pressure on economic and political systems in ways that will be impossible for politicians to ignore. If, for example, 1,100 people had died in Europe this week because of a terrorist attack, calls for action would be impossible to resist.
“These heat waves are becoming more frequent because of climate change,” Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said on Tuesday. “These heat waves are having impacts on human health,” he continued. “The same people who have been vulnerable to the Covid pandemic, they are also vulnerable to heat waves. So, we expect to see increased deaths among the old and sick people.”
The fight against climate change – like the pandemic – poses a universal threat, but it can be undermined by one nation’s unique political conditions and interests. Biden is expected yet again to try to overcome such barriers on Wednesday. But aides said he’s not yet ready to issue an emergency declaration over climate, a step demanded by environmental advocates and Democrats on Capitol Hill who are close to despair over the situation.
The urgency of the moment goes beyond scenes of roasting Europeans and draining US reservoirs, which prominent scientists say show the impact of man-made warming, and worryingly seem to be ahead of a predicted schedule.
This week’s heat domes and humidity are creating a perhaps unprecedented taste of a warming planet across a wide geographical footprint in developed nations where it is guaranteed blanket media coverage. But these extreme weather events also follow raging wildfires in Australia, heat-triggered avalanches in Europe and floods in western North America that are building a frightening case about what is to come.
Time is running out
The window for Biden to act is increasingly narrow – one reasons why climate activists are demanding one of the most sweeping deployments of executive power in history.
If Republicans win the House or the Senate in November’s midterm elections, the chance of passing meaningful climate change legislation will disappear for at least two years. If a GOP candidate wins the White House in 2024, climate reforms will probably be delayed for at least another four years.
That means the time for the US to take effective steps to keep greenhouse gas emissions below a disastrous threshold will have passed.
According to a recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, the US is on track to cut such emissions from 2005 levels between 24% and 35% by 2030 with no extra action. But the President has pledged to reduce emissions by between 50% and 52% in that same timeframe. Without his energy plan, which offers tax incentives to aggressively transform the economy to a new clean energy future, it is almost impossible for the US to reach that threshold.
It’s far from clear that Biden’s coming executive actions – however far reaching they might be – can bridge the gap. And they could be reversed by a future president from a Republican Party that is more interested in banning abortion and easing gun restrictions than in addressing the climate. Biden’s executive moves could also end up before a Supreme Court that just curtailed the administration’s capacity to use the Clean Air Act to battle climate change.
This isn’t just a Washington problem. If the US cannot meet its commitments, its foreign rivals and partners will be less willing to bear the economic costs of taking their own aggressive steps to control emissions. That would be a disaster for the planet.
Steps Biden could take
While his plan seems unlikely to be enshrined in law – the preferable route for climate activists – Biden does have some effective tools.
“We’re at a flashpoint. And it’s critical that the U.S. drives a bold, energetic transition away from fossil fuels and embraces a renewable energy future,” Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley tweeted Tuesday, calling on Biden to declare a national climate emergency. Such a move would, among other things, allow Biden to divert federal money to accelerate the race to a clean energy economy. He could widen use of wartime powers under the Defense Production Act to incentivize industry to develop and affordable new energy technologies.
But climate advocates want Biden to go much further, even if those actions could be challenged. Evergreen Action, an advocacy organization, called on him to immediately use the Environmental Protection Agency to cut pollution from power plants, to phase out new fossil fuel leases, to introduce stiff new limits on tailpipe emissions on cars and trucks, to require greater disclosures of emissions in business and to aggressively enforce existing emissions standards for industry and buildings.
Biden is also facing demands to end domestic fossil fuel subsidies and to end US donor support for fossil fuel projects and infrastructure overseas.
While many of these measures could be revoked by a future president’s stroke of a pen and would likely face immediate challenges in court from the powerful fossil fuel industry, they could quickly boost economic incentives for entrepreneurs to march towards a green energy future. And they could also prove to be a jobs engine, not to mention a potentially galvanizing force to get young and suburban voters to the polls this November.
That’s why many Democrats believe it’s time for Biden to ditch his trademark caution and ignite a new political battle.