Why executive orders on climate change may not be enough
The heatwave baking much of Earth's Northern and Western Hemispheres is a real-time consequence of humanity's unrelenting thirst for fossil fuels, and these impacts are arriving decades ahead of what scientists have anticipated. For example, this week's record-shattering temperatures in England were not predicted to occur until approximately 2050. The aridification of the American West – sparking wildfires and hastening the desiccation of reservoirs like Lake Mead – threatens the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. The rapid melting rate of polar ice sheets is also a sobering reminder that the 1.2 degrees Celsius of average global warming since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has disrupted the delicate balances of planetary systems.
Last week, United States Senator and coal magnate Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) scuppered President Joe Biden's agenda to tackle climate change over what Manchin claimed were concerns about economic inflation.
The Senate's Democrat-sponsored legislation allocated "roughly $300 billion in tax credits and subsidies aimed at greatly expanding wind, solar, electric car batteries and other clean energy technologies over the next decade. Had it survived, this would have been the single biggest investment Washington had ever made to combat the ravages of a warming climate," The New York Times Editorial Board noted in a Saturday editorial entitled: Climate Change Is Not Negotiable.
Calls have since resounded for Biden to declare a climate emergency, which would, among other items, enable Biden to grant the Federal Emergency Management Agency access to additional resources, suspend oil imports, and order the military (whose emissions outpace that of entire countries) to invest in projects to develop renewable energy.
Such actions have precedent. The Times' Editorial Board recalled that although "Biden has fewer tools to achieve his goals, which now seem out of reach, his best course is to take the same regulatory path President Barack Obama was forced to follow after the Senate’s last colossal climate failure — a cap and trade bill that passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate the following year. Using his executive authority, Mr. Obama secured big improvements in automobile efficiency and ordered reductions in power plant emissions, which didn’t take effect, although the power companies managed to achieve them on their own by burning cleaner natural gas and closing inefficient coal-fired plants."
The Supreme Court's June ruling in West Virginia versus the Environmental Protection Agency – which gutted the EPA's authority to enforce environmental regulations – was a further blow to Biden's ambitions and to curtailing pollution. Despite that, the Times editors explained, "Biden could devise a more modest and legally acceptable rule. He can and must push forward with new rules he has already ordered up to control emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as a suite of new mileage standards for cars and light trucks that would compel automakers to double down on their efforts to sell all-electric vehicles. The Interior Department can also continue its efforts to promote wind and solar power, which were jump-started under Mr. Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell. Mr. Biden embraced this course in a speech on Wednesday in Massachusetts."
There are auxiliary measures that Biden has at his disposal as well.
"Biden pledged in his campaign to halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, which is a significant cause of greenhouse gas emissions," the Times editors wrote. "That promise seems long ago and far away. Interior’s recent five-year offshore drilling plan opens the possibility of leasing in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, while a recent environmental impact statement does not foreclose, as environmentalists had hoped, the Willow Project, ConocoPhillips’s proposed development of oil and gas resources in the fragile Western Arctic."
Biden has the power to freeze those contracts, and a palette of them was suspended back in February.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Biden unveiled a plan to manage the fallout from extreme weather events, though he stopped short of issuing a more overarching emergency decree.
“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 look at it that way," the president said.
The Guardian pointed out, however, that "it is unclear whether such an extraordinary use of presidential powers, normally used in a military context, would survive if challenged in the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court, or if it would be enough to make a significant dent in planet-heating emissions."
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