Biden calls climate change ‘existential threat,’ but does not declare climate emergency

July 21, 2022

President Joe Biden announced new executive actions to address the “clear and present danger” of climate change, but stopped short of issuing a climate emergency declaration that could allow unilateral action to address climate change.

In a speech at a former coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts shifting to offshore wind power system manufacturing, Biden announced $2.3 billion in new resilience funding, $385 million for communities suffering from extreme heat and a 700,000-acre expansion of federal areas open for offshore wind power development.

Biden said climate change puts the health of citizens at stake and costs communities billions of dollars in damages.

“We see it here in red states and blue states — extreme weather events costing $145 billion in damages just last year, more powerful and destructive hurricanes and tornadoes,” Biden said. “Our national security is at stake as well. Extreme weather has already damaged our military installations here in the states, and our economy is at risk. So, we have to act. Extreme weather disrupts supply chains, causes delays and shortages for consumers and businesses. Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world.”

Pres. Joe Biden announcing new executive actions on climate change in Massachusetts

Scientists have observed a global warming trend since the middle of the 20th century that has been driven by human activity. The burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil and, to a lesser extent, carbon-intensive agricultural practices and industry have released greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the earth. That heat has caused dangerous and expensive-to-mitigate changes in the earth’s climate, like droughts, wildfires and extreme rainfall.

Here in Indiana, climate change has caused the average annual temperature to increase by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895. The average annual precipitation has increased by 5.6 inches since 1895, with much of it falling in shorter but heavier rain events that increase the risk of flooding.

Hoosier communities have invested millions of dollars just to keep up with the changes that are already happening and might have to invest millions more if fossil fuel use continues at its current rate.

Some projections have the average annual temperature rising between 5 and 6 degrees by midcentury and up to 10 degrees by 2100, a possibility that could prove fatal for some Hoosiers. By midcentury, average annual precipitation could also increase between 6% and 8%, creating massive changes in the way Hoosiers live, work and play.

“This is 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 the climate crisis in the absence of congressional action,” Biden said.

The Biden administration’s climate goals were seriously hampered late last week when coal broker and U.S. senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin said he would not support a Congressional effort to fund climate or energy programs by raising taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations, essentially blocking the Biden administration from being able to implement its plans to combat the climate crisis.

After Manchin’s announcement, Biden said he would use “every power I have as president to continue to fulfill my pledge to move toward dealing with global warming.” The administration floated the idea of declaring a national climate emergency, a move that could give the president more policy options to confront climate change, like suspending oil leases, limiting auto emissions, regulating financial transactions on fossil fuels and more.

Some environmental groups have urged the Biden administration to use the full power of the government to address the climate crisis.

“Joe Manchin has made it clear he would rather side with corporate polluters than the people who elected his own party’s president on a bold climate agenda,” said Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce. “Now it’s time for President Biden to exercise the authority of his office by using the full power of the federal government to ensure a future where all communities — especially those disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate-fueled disasters — can thrive. The American people expect and deserve an urgent response from the president to the climate crisis blazing a path to our doorsteps.”

But others worry that a climate emergency declaration and other executive action could become mired in lawsuits from affected industries, much like the Trump administration faced when it declared a national emergency at the southern border to get a border wall built after Congress rejected a plan to do so. Future administrations could also revoke executive actions.

“I recognize the political appeal of declaring a climate emergency, but Biden still has many tools to make progress,” said Jody Freeman, director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program. “There’s a strong argument for focusing on smart, effective regulatory actions rather than getting sidelined into swirl of conflict and litigation over [emergency action].”

The fossil fuel industry and its supporters are likely to sue to stop the implementation of any new actions limiting the use of fossil fuels or imposing profit-reducing emissions limits.

The industry has defeated previous attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and has successfully sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of a plan that would have essentially allowed states to set their own greenhouse gas emissions standards, the Trump Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The ACE Rule lawsuit, supported by the Republican attorneys general of Indiana and 18 other coal-dependent states, resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s limiting the EPA’s power to enact industry-wide greenhouse gas regulations.

Biden has, so far, wielded executive power on climate change lightly, potentially to keep open the possibility of reaching a deal with Manchin, according to some media reports.

Biden calls climate change ‘existential threat,’ but does not declare climate emergency