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With Congress Unwilling to Act, Pressure Grows on Biden to Declare National Climate Emergency

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Image Credit: Twitter: @bobbiestamaria

President Biden outlined new efforts to combat the climate crisis in a speech Wednesday but stopped short of declaring a national climate emergency — a move sought by the U.S. climate movement and many progressive lawmakers. This comes after Senator Joe Manchin just scuttled Biden’s Build Back Better climate legislation and as more than 100 million people in the United States are under heat advisories. We speak with Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who co-wrote a report detailing how the president can use emergency powers to address the climate crisis. “We’ve wasted too much time thinking about Senator Manchin and relying on Congress,” says Su. “We have to go full force on executive action.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re spending the hour looking at the climate crisis across the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa to here in the United States, where we begin. On Wednesday, President Biden traveled to Somerset, Massachusetts, to outline new efforts to combat the climate crisis, including expanding offshore wind power and giving $2.3 billion to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help communities become more resilient to heat waves, drought and wildfire. Biden’s speech came as more than 100 million people in the United States are under heat advisories. He spoke at a former coal plant which is being turned into an offshore wind facility.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: While President Biden repeatedly described the climate crisis as an “emergency” on Wednesday, he stopped short of declaring a national climate emergency — a move sought by many progressive lawmakers and climate activists.

We go now to Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. She recently co-wrote a report detailing how the president could use his emergency powers to address the climate crisis.

Jean, can you start off by talking about what it would mean if he does declare a climate emergency? And what does it mean that he didn’t do it yesterday?

JEAN SU: Absolutely. So, right now, for the first time, President Biden —

AMY GOODMAN: Jean, you seem to have broken up. But we’re going to go to another clip of President Biden speaking yesterday in Massachusetts.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That’s why today I’m making the largest investment ever — $2.3 billion — to help communities across the country build infrastructure that’s designed to withstand the full range of disasters we’ve been seeing up to today — extreme heat, drought, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes. Right now there are millions of people suffering from extreme heat at home. So my team is also working with the states to deploy $385 million right now. For the first time, states will be able to use federal funds to pay for air conditioners in homes, set up community cooling centers in schools, where people can get through these extreme heat crises. …

Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan. Not one. So let me be clear: Climate change is an emergency. And in the coming weeks, I’m going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal, official government actions through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders and regulatory power that a president possesses. And when it comes to fighting the climate change — climate change, I will not take no for an answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Jean Su, President Biden used the term “emergency” five or six times during the speech but did not actually declare a national climate emergency. Its significance?

JEAN SU: Yes. So, President Biden did not declare a climate emergency yesterday. We absolutely need him to do that. It is an incredible rallying cry if President Biden can actually articulate that we are in a climate emergency and unleash all the tools in his toolbox as the president to really combat the crisis in front of us. The other part of the climate emergency declaration is that it signals to the entire world and Americans that President Biden is no longer going to have a confused or slow-walked climate policy, that he is going to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to the suffering that we are all experiencing right now across the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jean Su, your organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, was involved in litigation against Trump’s use of emergency powers to build the wall along the Mexico border. Could you elaborate on that case and how it might be relevant today?

JEAN SU: Absolutely. So, I personally litigated that case. And in that case, President Trump declared what is happening at the border as an emergency. In fact, it isn’t an emergency. We know that immigration is happening across the border, and we’ve known for some time. And we also know the pinch points of where that was.

In terms of that case, he actually took money from the military, after Congress actually said, “No, you can’t have more than $1 billion,” at that point, and he went against Congress, redistributed that money towards construction of the border wall, using — illegally using an emergency power that only allows military spending to be redirected for military purposes to help the military. Several groups litigated against President Trump for abusing these emergency powers and going against Congress’s will to do that type of border wall construction. Eventually, that case was mooted out, because the Biden administration stopped constructing. But one district court did find that it was illegal for President Trump to use those military funds in that way, because it was not actually going towards helping the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Jean, could you outline what are the measures that Biden could take in the event that he does declare an emergency?

JEAN SU: Absolutely. So, the Biden administration, if they declare a climate emergency, actually unlocks additional emergency powers, as well as ordinary powers, to deal with the climate emergency. Some of the emergency powers are very powerful tools to turn off the spigot for fossil fuels. One of them would be to reinstate our crude oil export ban, which has allowed the fracking and explosion of oil in the Permian Basin. Another is to actually stop offshore drilling right now that is happening in the ocean. And finally, another power would allow him to stop the hundreds of billions of dollars every year that private corporations, like BlackRock, like all of our private banks, are sending abroad to build fossil fuel plants and poisoning and endangering communities there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could also respond to what should happen with Senator Manchin now that he has scuttled the climate deal, saying he would not support a climate bill in the Senate?

JEAN SU: Unfortunately, we’ve wasted too much time thinking about Senator Manchin and relying on Congress. I think one of the mistakes that the administration and all of us have made since Biden began is that there was an explicit focus with all eggs on legislation. In fact, he’s always had these executive powers at his fingertips to combat climate with the full force of his executive quiver. And we’re asking him to move on that. He did not move on that and waited for Senator Manchin. We cannot wait any longer. In fact, those executive powers should have been used on day one at the same time as pursuing legislation. So, now that we’ve seen that Congress is in flux again and people are still waiting on the whim of Senator Manchin and whether he’s going to say yes or no, we don’t have time for those games. We can’t afford those games. And we have to go full force on executive action.

AMY GOODMAN: A meme has been going around that says, “The Koch brothers still own a lot of real estate, but their best investment may be the Manchin they bought in West Virginia.” Jean Su, we want to thank you so much for being with us, energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But we’re staying on the issue of climate. Coming up, we’re going to Uganda to speak with the climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate about the climate crisis in Africa. And then we’ll go to Britain, where records have been smashed around heat, and speak with George Monbiot. Stay with us.

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“It’s Already Happening”: Ugandan Activist Vanessa Nakate on Deadly Climate Crisis in Africa

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