Biden wields presidential powers for climate — he should, but shouldn’t have to

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report, Friday, June 3, 2022, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Biden took incredibly bold actions on Monday to support clean energy manufacturing and deployment in the United States. This move will create jobs, save Americans money on electric bills — and most importantly, accelerate our efforts in fighting the climate crisis. He did so quite efficiently, with the stroke of a pen.

The president took two important executive actions. First, he used the Defense Production Act to spur American manufacturing of a number of technologies needed to decarbonize the economy — solar panels and other module components, heat pumps, insulation, grid infrastructure, hydrogen fuels and more. Second, he put a two-year hiatus on the Commerce Department’s ability to retroactively collect tariffs on solar panels from certain Asian countries (Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) — if they decide tariffs are warranted after they complete investigating claims of unfair trade practices. The majority of solar projects in the U.S. rely on solar panels from these countries, so the Commerce Department’s probe was essentially handcuffing the industry and stalling its growth.

After pressure from clean energy industry leaders and climate activists, the president took decisive action to stave off backsliding on our climate goals, and instead, to supercharge them.

Jean Su, energy justice program director of the Center for Biological Diversity called the announcement “a game changer.” She noted, “on a macro level, we’re seeing him really flex his muscles on his executive powers, which he has not yet done to date … That’s a huge sea change in terms of his approach for climate.”

A stronger approach is something climate voters have been waiting for him to do since he took office.

Not only will this have positive impacts for the clean energy industry and the economy in the short run, but it’s also creating a precedent that he and other presidents can follow — to use executive power to address the climate crisis. Because if ever there was a crisis that deserved bold and swift executive action, this is it.

The flip side of this exciting and much-needed positive news in the climate fight is that the president shouldn’t have to address the climate crisis through executive action. He’s forced to because of another grave crisis we face — our democracy crisis.

From an activist’s blog to the president’s desk

In February, climate activist and thought leader Bill McKibben penned an essay calling for the president to use the Defense Production Act to manufacture heat pumps and send them to Europe, which faced oil and gas shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would “peacefully punch Putin in the kidneys,” McKibben wrote, while also helping to fight the climate crisis and increase domestic clean energy manufacturing capacity at home.

McKibben reminds us of what the government can do when it’s motivated, as displayed during World War II. FDR used wartime powers available to the president to turn American manufacturers of all stripes into a production line of tanks, planes and weapons to fight fascism at breakneck speed.

Since the dawn of the climate crisis, people have made the poignant case for presidents to use executive power, declare a climate emergency as well as mobilize clean energy manufacturing and deployment at wartime speed, the way we did in WWII.

But no president had, until now. I’m not sure if Biden read McKibben’s essay, but clearly the idea gained traction in the right places.

The democracy crisis

As you would expect, the president’s critics are bemoaning his use of executive power. As did President Obama’s critics and President Trump’s critics, understandably.

But let’s face it — there’s a reason presidents have increasingly turned to executive power to get things done. In many cases, it’s the only way to accomplish anything, with Congress seemingly hellbent on obstructing any actions that might benefit the American people. Lest we forget Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) efforts that are “100 percent” focused “on stopping” Biden’s administration, and Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) familiar strategy of perpetually delaying meaningful climate action in the Senate.

In 2014, Princeton published a study suggesting we don’t actually live in a democracy at all. For 30 years prior, the general public’s opinion had barely influenced legislation. Meanwhile, the demands of the very wealthy correlated closely to what laws were passed. The BBC summarized the findings as, “the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.”

For example, while over 90 percent of Americans want more stringent gun laws to try and limit gun violence and the number of mass shootings, lawmakers in Congress continue to shrug their shoulders. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) laments, “we’ve been burnt so many times before” trying to work with Republicans on gun control.

Climate activists are all too familiar with this sad state of affairs. While two-thirds of Americans are worried about global warming and 77 percent would like to see more federal funding for clean energy, our energy policy remains basically the same as it has since the 1970s, despite all the oil shocks, wars and inspiring speeches about weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and international energy sources.

The fossil fuel lobby, like the gun lobby and the pharmaceutical lobby (and the list goes on) have an undemocratic influence on our political system growing by the year as money in politics becomes more commonplace and as the laws that limit it are increasingly loosened, weakening Congress’ ability to act.

That’s why these executive actions on climate are such a big deal. The president is changing that pattern, showing that climate and clean energy manufacturing are too important to wait. We can’t let another year go by while the fossil fuel lobby’s influence on Congress blocks climate action.

And yet, as citizens, we must acknowledge that this is not how a representative government should work. We must do all we can to address the democracy crisis alongside the climate crisis, if our planet and our democracy are going to survive these troubled times.

Andreas Karelas is the author of “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America.” He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Tags Biden Bill McKibben clean energy Climate change Defense Production Act Energy Global warming Jean Su solar

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