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Two Steps Forward

What should a climate emergency look like?

A playbook for what Biden could, and should, be doing, courtesy of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Biden Emergency

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Reprinted from GreenBuzz, a free weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

You probably don’t need both hands to count the number of columns I’ve written about politics and policy. It’s not that I don’t care about either; indeed, I’m a bit of a political junkie. But professionally — and editorially — it’s not my jam.

I much prefer to focus my gaze on the world of business. After more than 30 years, it continues to be an always-fascinating fount of action, and inaction, in addressing the climate crisis and other critical environmental and social issues. That’s what I wake up most days thinking about.

Along the way, I’ve found myself diverting my gaze from Washington, D.C., despite having lived there for more than two decades, up until the late 1990s. For all the potential power our elected representatives could exercise over climate and other issues, they’ve been unable and unwilling to view these issues as anything other than partisan. Instead of systemic solutions, we’ve gotten systemic breakdown.

The result, as you know all too well, has been an unconscionable waste of time and resources addressing urgent, existential issues.

The latest round of congressional dithering feels like the last straw.

Indeed, the latest round of congressional dithering feels like the last straw. It’s simply unfathomable why 51 United States senators would want to maintain the status quo in light of the freight train of climate chaos bearing down on us.

So, I was intrigued last week when the chattering class began to discuss the possibility of President Joe Biden's declaring a "climate emergency" — an act that would unlock a series of executive and regulatory actions that can be taken in lieu of congressional action.

So far, Biden hasn’t done that. What he offered last week were a few small-ball fixes: funding for cooling centers during heatwaves, opening up new leases for offshore wind. Nothing that even remotely suggests "emergency."

So, what could an actual climate emergency declaration look like? The answer to that question came in the form of a tweet stream — a series of Twitter posts — from Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, probably the most climate-forward legislator in D.C. So, I’m going to turn the rest of this column over to him.

I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting the tweet stream verbatim, with some very light editing to spell out some acronyms or otherwise increase clarity. (The boldfacing is mine.) Whitehouse's tweet stream provides a playbook for what Biden could, and should, be doing. (For those seeking a deeper dive, the Center for Biological Diversity has published an in-depth guide to the president’s emergency powers on climate.)

Now, over to Sen. Whitehouse:

With reconciliation foreclosed as a path for ambitious climate action, Congress must pivot to potentially bipartisan climate solutions such as a border carbon adjustment. Meanwhile, the executive branch has lots of tools at its disposal. Let’s review one by one what executive branch "Climate Beast Mode" might look like:

  • The Office of Management and Budget must promulgate a robust social cost of carbon (north of $100/ton) and require broad use across government decision-making — procurement, regulations, grants, leasing, permitting, royalty rates, investment decisions, foreign aid, trade agreements and more.
  • The Supreme Court’s WV v. EPA decision didn't end EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution from power plants. EPA options include requiring all coal- and gas-fired power plants to install carbon capture technology, as EPA did in 2015 for new coal-fired plants.
  • But power plants aren’t just sources of carbon pollution — they also pollute our air and water with soot, heavy metals and other toxic pollutants. EPA must tighten controls on PM 2.5 (soot), coal ash, mercury, nitrogen oxides and more.
  • Cars and light trucks are the single largest source of carbon pollution. EPA and DOT restored Obama-era standards, but now they need to go much further and push the industry towards manufacturing 100 percent zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
  • Heavy-duty trucks are also a huge source of carbon pollution. EPA doesn’t yet address this, and that needs to change. California’s advanced clean truck rule would increase zero-emission trucks, and EPA must follow suit.
  • Green procurement can use the government’s immense purchasing power (more than $600 billion in contracts per year!) to decarbonize steel, cement, asphalt, buildings, vehicles and so much more.
  • EPA must promulgate a rigorous rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas facilities. The rule must apply across the supply chain, including low-producing (but high-leaking) wells, and crack down on venting and flaring, not just leaks.
  • Satellite measurements can locate methane leaks to target strict enforcement against companies that are not in compliance.
  • It’s past time for the Justice Department to investigate the fossil-fuel industry for its decades of lies. DOJ brought a civil RICO investigation against the tobacco industry for a similar history of dissembling and won big.
  • The Interior Dept. must by rule sharply limit methane emissions from oil/gas produced on federal lands/waters, use social cost of carbon to raise royalty rates, and reform bonding rules so companies can’t abandon wells to leak methane and leave taxpayers on the hook.
  • The Department of Energy has many energy-efficiency rules it must strengthen. Together, these rules significantly reduce carbon pollution and they save families money. Win–win!
  • The president should use his bully pulpit to remind Americans of the danger, call out fossil-fuel obstruction in Congress, and get the rest of corporate America to finally lean in on climate action, creating space in Congress for bipartisan climate successes.
  • (No trade association is of any damned use on climate. Big lobbies such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are hostile and the whole vast apparatus of corporate political influence ends up against us. Stop it.)
  • The administration should sit down with G7 partners, design carbon border tariffs, and create a carbon club of nations dedicated to decarbonizing. Good for the environment and a big win for American competitiveness!

As I said, it’s a thoughtful and, presumably, impactful playbook for how America can regain its footing on addressing the climate crisis. Can Biden find the courage to enact these? Will he stand up to the powerful interests hellbent on maintaining the status quo? It may be the president’s biggest test yet.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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