Biden eyes climate emergency declaration as Democrats demand swift action

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powers to regulate power plants’ carbon emissions

Biden eyes climate emergency declaration as Democrats demand swift action

White House officials are scrambling to advance the president’s environmental agenda after talks with Sen. Joe Manchin III stalled

Some Democrats have held out hope they can still strike a deal with the moderate lawmaker, who has raised fiscal concerns about his party’s spending ambitions all along. But Manchin skipped a lunch for Democratic senators on Tuesday, where at least one member of his caucus delivered an impassioned plea for a congressional response to the fast-warming planet.

“If we leave here, go home, without having followed through … we’ve made a huge mistake,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the leader of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He told reporters he delivered that message to fellow Democrats and to Manchin privately.

The prospect of a national climate emergency in particular has come up in conversations among top administration officials, climate activists and Democratic lawmakers, some of whom expect Biden to outline other policy initiatives Wednesday aimed at curbing planet-warming emissions. The White House has billed the president’s address as one focused on “tackling the climate crisis and seizing the opportunity of a clean energy future to create jobs and lower costs for families.”

“Starting with an emergency declaration is a good place to start, but then you actually have to do the things to lower emissions,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters Tuesday, adding he is “looking forward to those steps.” Asked whether the White House had talked to members of Congress about issuing a climate emergency, Whitehouse merely replied: “Yes.”

The flurry of developments came on a day when the consequences of global warming appeared stark: Another punishing heat wave has descended on the central United States, and a similar weather pattern is sparking wildfires and breaking temperature records across Europe.

“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,” Carper said. “And we’re here talking about not doing climate before the end of this session. I think that’s an incredible mistake.”

People living in tents last month during a heat advisory in Atlanta. (Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg)

The president himself raised the prospect of executive action on climate change last week, as talks collapsed between Democratic leaders and Manchin over what might have been the largest infusion of climate-related spending in U.S. history.

Initially, Democrats had hoped to invest more than $500 billion in new programs to cut emissions and support new technologies, including electric vehicles, before Manchin raised objections to the Build Back Better Act. The West Virginian’s opposition proved politically fatal, since party lawmakers require his vote to advance any bill using the process known as reconciliation — a tactic that allows Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster in the narrowly divided chamber.

Democrats soon set about rethinking their plans, eyeing what might have been $300 billion in climate-focused investments in a bid to satisfy Manchin. But the moderate senator, who represents a coal-heavy state, last week said he could not support his party’s attempts to advance such spending this month amid record-high inflation.

Manchin later expressed an openness to tackling climate change but said he would do so only after seeing another round of indicators next month. But many Democrats said they did not want to take the risk, leaving them no choice but to shelve their plans entirely — and focus their attention instead on health-care proposals Manchin does support.

“Americans are getting mugged at the checkout counter … and that’s why we’ve got to get relief in this work period,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the leader of the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee, told reporters Tuesday.

It is unclear how, exactly, Biden plans to proceed if he opts to declare a climate emergency, which Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged him to do just days after the president took office last year.

Some climate activists have urged the White House in recent months to deploy an emergency declaration to maximum effect, arguing that it would allow the president to halt crude oil exports, limit oil and gas drilling in federal waters, and direct agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency to boost renewable-energy sources.

But the president faces a tough balancing act as he seeks to calibrate his response to a warming planet with the recent economic reality of high gas prices. The policies could aid in Biden’s quest to halve U.S. emissions by the end of the decade compared to 2005 levels, though they still fall short of what Biden aimed to enact through his earlier economic plan, known as Build Back Better.

Any new executive action on climate also could face a formidable court challenge, which could affect the future of environmental regulations. Last month, the Supreme Court cut back the federal government’s powers to regulate power plants’ carbon emissions.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Jared Bernstein, a top White House economic adviser, emphasized that Biden would work “aggressively fight to attack climate change.”

“I think realistically there is a lot he can do and there is a lot he will do,” Bernstein said.

Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.