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Biden Says Climate Change Is Now an Emergency. What Will He Do About It?


The man who would be king (Image: Philip Montgomery for The New Yorker)

By Thomas Neuburger


"This is an emergency. And I will look at it that way. I’ll use my executive powers to combat climate — the climate crisis in the absence of congressional actions" —President Joe Biden, July 20, 2022


Rumors are flying that President Biden is on the verge of declaring a "climate emergency." Both the leftie press and the right-wing media organs are "all a-twit," as the great W.C. Fields once said to Mae West (script primarily by Mae West, by the way).


What has set the twits a-twittering and a-Tweeting is a July 20 speech by Biden, in which he said in part:

Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world.
So my message today is this: Since Congress is not acting as it should — and these guys here are, but we’re not getting many Republican votes — this is an emergency. An emergency. And I will — I will look at it that way. I said last week and I’ll say it again loud and clear: As President, I’ll use my executive powers to combat climate — the climate crisis in the absence of congressional actions, notwithstanding their incredible action. (Applause.) In the coming days, my administration will announce the executive actions we have developed to combat this emergency. We need to act. (emphasis added)

On July 24, "U.S. climate envoy" John Kerry reiterated the President's position.


As you can imagine, this opens quite a door and more than a few mouths. Heritage, of course, weighed in, fighting tooth and nail to brand the measure "radical" as well as "costly and ineffective." The rest of the right-wing world is similarly exercised, because "freedom," of course (meaning, "fossil fuel billionaire profits").


The View from the Left


The leftie world, the part not tied to Big Money, is all in favor. In fact, that world is saying, "C'mon, already. Do it."

Following the speech, the White House released a list of executive actions it said it will do. All are good starts and good things to be done. But what those actions don't do is actually declare an emergency:

Even though the president called climate change an “emergency” and that he "will look at it that way," he stopped short of officially declaring a climate emergency under the National Emergency Act (NEA). This would have set the stage for much bolder climate actions, according to an open letter to President Biden signed by Sens. Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse, Brian Schatz, Martin Heinrich, and Alex Padilla.
“Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would unlock powers to rebuild a better economy with significant, concrete actions,” the senators wrote.
“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. All of these actions would employ Americans in new and emerging industries while securing American leadership in global markets.” (emphasis added)

If you believe, as I do, that urgent climate action is needed now — as in yesterday, meaning 1978 — you're probably with those who are encouraged by these statements, yet appalled by the delay and apparent half-heartedness.


Biden's Staff Revolts


Which brings me to this, from David Sirota and LeverNews:

Biden’s Staff Sounds Climate Alarm — About Biden
A letter obtained by The Lever shows the call for climate action is now coming from inside the administration.
President Joe Biden’s surrender on climate policy amid the intensifying crisis has prompted his own agency experts to sound a rare public alarm about their boss’s retreat, according to a letter being circulated throughout the administration and Capitol Hill.
The letter to Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — provided to The Lever by a House Democratic staffer — is initialed by 165 staffers at federal health and environmental agencies and at more than 80 congressional offices. They are demanding the president use more aggressive tactics to pass his long-promised climate agenda through the Senate.

Note the word "surrender" in the first paragraph of the story. That's strong stuff, and a challenge to a sitting president whose unpopularity mounts daily; who has no doubt timed his announcement, at least in part, to boost enthusiasm among flagging liberals ahead of the election season; and whom a great many mainstream liberals, both in power and out, have been struggling to defend on the ground that it's best to bolster a weak Democratic regime that allow the alternative.


This challenge from staff, 165 and counting, ought to make news. No wonder the writers and signers initialed the letter instead of using full names, though the source of the leak to Sirota is out and vulnerable: "The letter was provided to The Lever by Saul Levin, a House Democratic staffer and coordinator of the Congressional Progressive Staff Association Climate Working Group."


Sirota's language about surrender is clearly his own, but justified by this passage from letter itself:

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has gone to some lengths to secure Senator Joe Manchin’s support for compromised climate policy, offering pipelines and other problematic trades to secure his vote. These efforts thus far have failed, and we are not surprised. At every turn, you [Biden] and Senator Schumer have identified key policies you could water down as a negotiation tactic. Most recently, you have taken Senator Manchin’s concerns about inflation rates at face value, even though they represent delay tactics and misinformation funded and designed by the fossil fuel industry and Republican billionaires. As political strategists, policy writers, and communication experts, we urge you to take a new approach that meets the urgency of this crisis. (emphasis added)

Pretty much lays it on the line. I'll be interested to see what the staffers do next, if an emergency is not declared. Will they retreat or escalate? If they retreat, is that another surrender? I would say so.


The Message for Us


There's a pretty clear set of messages in this for all of us "littles," as a Bush-era billionaire called us:


• This is clearly a crossroads for the administration with respect to climate. There's nothing incremental about a climate emergency backed by the NEA. There's nothing but weakness in any alternative.


• The odds of Biden reneging ("surrendering" in Sirota's language) on his bold declaratoin are great, if past behavior's a guide.


• This administration would clearly like to survive to a second term, even if the name at the top is changed to "Harris" or "Buttigieg," to name just two of the replacement neoliberals poised to offer, selflessly, to serve.


• Supporters of a declaration can challenge Biden hard or back off. That's always the choice for liberals and the left (not the same animals by any stretch) — play hardball or soft, demand with a stick or ask with a sugary treat, knowing that Republicans stand in the waiting wings, ready to make things worse than Democrats do.


I'll leave that last choice to you — carrot or stick, ask or demand, hard fast ball or soft — but know, this is indeed a crossroad, for them and for us. A declared climate emergency under the Act would change the whole climate game in the United States. It would also start a war, but that's a misstatement, since that war's already started, has been for years. The difference would be, now both sides would fight in it.


Should Biden be allowed to remain president if he doesn't bend to the pressure he's put himself under? That's an interesting question — but an academic one, since nothing you or I can ever do will ever determine the outcome. Millions of voters will do that on their own, voters who don't listen to us, but to the gods and demons of their chosen media. Whether we encourage their support or dampen it, adds little to what will occur in the mass as a whole.


But this is certain: The odds of a full-on Republican government after 2024 grow greater each day, and emergency climate action would change the game for Democrats, not to mention the earth.


If you're at all inclined to save them (the Democrats), encourage Biden to do what said he'd do — treat the growing disaster is if it is one. That may be the only way to save their bacon, assuming millions do it, and assuming they listen.

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