Jul 21, 2022

A climate change emergency.

A climate change emergency.
Photo by Li-An Lim / Unsplash

President Biden is considering far-reaching executive action.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Biden's climate change plan. Plus, a question about Democrats' messaging.

Photo by Li-An Lim / Unsplash

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Quick hits.

  1. President Joe Biden tested positive for Covid-19 this morning, the White House press secretary announced in a statement. (The test)
  2. A bipartisan group of Senators announced a deal to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, clarifying that the role of the vice president is symbolic, raising the threshold to object to results from states, and barring states from declaring a "failed election" to override the popular vote. (The deal)
  3. Wisconsin's Republican house speaker said that former President Trump has called him "within the last week" seeking to overturn the 2020 election results. (The comments)
  4. Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, was ordered to testify in a Georgia criminal investigation into election interference. (The testimony)
  5. Russia resumed the Nord Stream 1 gas supply to Europe, easing concerns it may shut off Europe's largest natural gas import infrastructure. (The gas)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Biden's climate change plan. Democrats had hoped to invest as much as $550 billion in their sweeping Build Back Better plan to create new programs to cut emissions and promote the use of technologies like electric vehicles. They eventually narrowed that bill to $300 billion to win Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-WV) support, and there were reports of progress. But last week, Sen. Manchin said he would not support legislation on climate change until he sees the latest inflation numbers. President Biden responded by pledging to push forward via executive action — and hinted at a national emergency declaration to unlock more funds and resources.

On Wednesday, Biden announced his first set of modest executive actions during a visit to Massachusetts, calling for new funding for cooling centers and pushing for off-shore wind projects to produce energy in the Gulf of Mexico. His announcement came in the midst of heat waves across Europe and the U.S. (100 million Americans are under heat warnings this week). He did not declare a climate emergency, as some had predicted he might, though he alluded to the possibility.

"Climate change is literally an existential threat to our nation and to the world," Biden said. "This is an emergency, an emergency, and I will look at it that way."

If Biden were to declare a national climate emergency, he would unlock a host of new powers and resources, though many are likely to face legal challenges. Climate activists have called on Biden to use his executive authority to pause crude oil exports and offshore drilling as well as to end private investment in fossil fuel projects abroad.

When Donald Trump was president, he controversially used a national emergency act to reallocate military funds to the construction of his border wall, which drew criticism from some Republicans who worried about the precedent such a declaration would set.

“If today the national emergency is border security … tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said on CNBC in 2019.

Now, it appears Biden may be considering a similar path. Below, we'll take a look at some arguments about what the Biden administration should do to combat climate change now, with a focus on the possibility that he may declare a climate emergency.

What the right is saying.

  • The right says declaring an emergency would be an abuse of power, and warns that it would exacerbate Biden's political problems.
  • Many argue the only path toward combating climate change is a global one.
  • Others say Democrats need to make their case to the public, not operate through executive action.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it would be an "even greater abuse of power" than Trump's repurposing of military funds for a border wall.

"While a President may sometimes need to act with dispatch during an emergency, climate change isn’t close to such an event," the board wrote. "Climate change is neither sudden nor unexpected. The world has warmed by 1.1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century, and the pace of future warming is uncertain and depends on multiple variables. In any case, nothing progressives want Mr. Biden to do will affect the climate or even reduce global CO2 emissions. China and India will continue to build coal plants that offset all of the West’s climate sacrifices... But that isn’t stopping progressives from demanding that Mr. Biden roll over the Constitution’s separation of powers. One irony is that Congress passed the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to limit abuses of executive power.

"Here are some of the ways progressives now want Mr. Biden to impose his climate agenda without democratic assent: Halt oil exports... banning U.S. exports would drive up global oil prices, and the U.S. would still have to import refined products and crude to meet demand," the board said. "Stop oil and gas drilling in the outer continental shelf. Mr. Biden has already imposed a de facto moratorium on new offshore leases, but progressives want him to suspend existing leases. This would reduce U.S. production by about 1.8 million barrels a day—about two to three times as much as Russian output has declined owing to Western sanctions... Use the Defense Production Act to build green energy... While Mr. Biden could try to command manufacturers to make more green products, logistical snags would abound."

Henry Olsen said the United States "cannot stop climate change alone" even if Biden fulfills activists’ climate goals through executive action.

"Fighting climate change effectively and rapidly means doing something that even climate activists often shy away from proposing: starting a global trade war," Olsen wrote. "Emissions in the United States and the European Union are dropping, but standards of living there are being supported by importing products being made more cheaply in other places. This essentially offshores emissions to places with dirtier and cheaper sources of energy, such as coal. That is causing global emissions to rise more quickly than developed countries can cut theirs.

"Rapid decreases in global emissions are therefore only possible by reversing this globalization through border carbon adjustments, or tariffs weighted for the carbon input of imported goods," Olsen added. "Imposing those adjustments without any concern about how it will affect the economies of developing nations would start a trade war that would make Trump’s tariffs look like child’s play. And bailing out those nations through international wealth transfers would likely cause a voter revolt of unimaginable magnitude. Any attempt by Biden to impose such policies under the guise of a climate emergency would be entirely undemocratic."

The New York Post editorial board said it would be one more sign Biden is putting extremist demands from his party's base ahead of democracy.

"The only thing that’s changed on the environment front over the last week is the death of Democrats’ hopes to devote $300 billion in tax credits to green industries," the board said. "Oh, and earlier the Supreme Court finally told the Environmental Protection Agency it couldn’t misread the clear letter of the law to impose costly anti-carbon-emissions mandates on the nation. Neither the tax credits nor the EPA’s rules would have had much immediate impact on climate change (especially since China, India and the developing world continue to vastly increase their emissions). So the only new “emergency” is Democrats’ inability to get their way through normal democratic procedures — that is, winning the majorities in Congress needed to change US laws, by convincing a majority of Americans that drastic action is called for.

"To be clear: The balance of evidence shows that climate change is real, and human activity contributes significantly to it. But the evidence also shows that it’s not remotely apocalyptic: Humanity will be in far better shape by the end of the century even if the world does nothing more to reduce carbon emissions," the board wrote. "Most of the media (and school curricula) push cataclysmic claims about climate change, so the public (especially younger people who’ve been propagandized their entire lives) routinely tells pollsters it’d like the government to act. But that support turns to dust when it comes to most specific steps, which involve huge expenses for small gains: Witness the fury at $4+-a-gallon gas, a direct result of Biden’s (and Western governments’ generally) war on carbon fuels."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left want Biden to take drastic action on climate change.
  • Most say a climate emergency declaration is necessary, and would show the world Biden is serious.
  • Others remind us of opportunities to fight climate change with better focused priorities, even without a national emergency.

In The New York Times, Coral Davenport wrote about the four ways the U.S. can still combat climate change without a national emergency declaration.

"Vehicles are the nation’s largest source of planet-warming pollution, and experts say that rapidly ending the use of gasoline-powered cars is crucial to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Mr. Biden has directed the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department to write a transformative new regulation to rein in tailpipe pollution and accelerate the nation’s transition to electric vehicles," Davenport said. "Coal and gas-fired power plants are the nation’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. While the Environmental Protection Agency has been blocked by the Supreme Court from issuing a sweeping, ambitious rule that would shut down power plants fueled by coal and gas, the agency still plans to issue a more modest rule that would compel electric utilities to slightly lower their greenhouse emissions, and possibly to install technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide pollution, although that pricey technology is not yet widely available.

"Focus on methane," Davenport added. "Carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is the planet’s most abundant and dangerous greenhouse gas, but methane, which is emitted into the atmosphere through leaks from oil and gas drilling sites, is a close second. It lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time than carbon dioxide, but packs a bigger punch while it lasts... In the coming months, the E.P.A. plans to issue tougher new regulations to curb leaks of methane from oil and gas wells, a move that could take a significant slice out of the nation’s overall greenhouse gas pollution... Absent federal action on climate change, state-level climate policies will play a more important role. Just under half the states have already enacted significant climate policies. The leader is California, which in the coming weeks is expected to finalize a first-in-the-nation regulation requiring that all new cars sold in the state must be electric or zero-emission by 2035. Seventeen other states are in line to adopt the same rule when it passes in Sacramento."

In Vox, Rebecca Leber wrote about the opportunity to declare an emergency.

"On Wednesday, Biden announced mostly piecemeal actions: $2.3 billion for a FEMA buildings program to combat heat waves and other disasters, releasing guidance for the Low Income Housing Assistance Program to establish programs like community cooling centers, and opening up 700,000 acres for offshore wind energy bids in the Southeast," she wrote. "None of this will fill the gap left by $550 billion in undelivered climate funds in the once-hoped-for reconciliation bill. But Biden faces immense pressure from the left to do a lot more, and to announce it soon. One of the powers Biden could use is his emergency authorities under the National Emergencies Act of 1976.

"Declaring the first-ever climate emergency would show Biden is putting the full weight of the executive branch behind combating the climate crisis, climate advocates argue," Leber said. "In 2021, more than 40 percent of the country lived somewhere hit by a climate-related disaster; even as Biden spoke, more than 100 million Americans were under excessive heat warnings. The Center for Biological Diversity argued in a February report that an emergency declaration would allow the president, among other actions, to use the Defense Production Act to boost renewable manufacturing; use the National Emergencies Act to halt crude oil exports and stop leasing to fossil fuels companies and new drilling offshore; and use the executive branch’s $650 billion procurement budget to buy clean energy and electric vehicles."

After the Supreme Court's ruling limiting the EPA's power, Jean Su and Maya Golden-Krasner argued that Biden could ratchet down oil and gas production.

"Biden can also declare a national climate emergency and reinstate the crude oil export ban that Congress overturned in 2015. Oil drilling in the Permian Basin has exploded since then, creating the Earth’s largest climate bomb," they wrote. "Production quadrupled in the past decade and is expected to grow aggressively in the next, spewing climate- and health-damaging pollution from wellheads to the export terminals built next to low-income communities and those of color. Banning crude oil exports alone could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 165 million metric tons each year—the equivalent of shuttering 42 coal plants. These are bold climate actions, but we have hope that the Biden administration has the political will to take them on.

"And there is precedent for him to do so. Earlier this year, we wrote a  egal blueprint outlining how the president can deploy his emergency powers to supercharge the transition to a green, just energy system," they argued. "More than 1,200 organizations in the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition have called on Biden to embrace these powers, declare a national climate emergency, and take swift executive action to reject new fossil fuel leases, infrastructure, and exports. In June, Biden heeded these calls by invoking the Defense Production Act to jump-start renewable-energy manufacturing. In doing so, he signaled a sea change in his administration’s strategy to combat the climate emergency and redress deep-seated inequities. For the first time, he also put our country’s climate strategy on a wartime footing."

My take.

A few days ago, I saw a funny (if not extremely frustrating) tweet from the writer Matt Walsh. The tweet was an obvious reference to the debate about how to act on climate change.

"Remember when they spent years telling us to panic over the hole in the ozone layer and then suddenly just stopped talking about it and nobody ever mentioned the ozone layer again?" Walsh asked sarcastically. "This was also back during the time when they scared school children into believing that 'acid rain' was a real and urgent threat."

It was funny (and extremely frustrating) because it revealed both the absurdity of our current conversation and the ignorance of some people participating in it.

What is apparently news to Walsh is the reason we "don't talk about" the ozone layer anymore, which is that it has been significantly repaired over the last several decades, primarily because a group of global scientists identified chlorofluorocarbons as being disastrous for the ozone layer. Global leaders believed those scientists, signed the Montreal Protocol, and the use of CFCs fell 99.7%. Over the ensuing years the ozone layer began to repair itself, just as scientists predicted it would. In the U.S., this cooperative process was ushered in by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

The evidence is clear that climate change is a real and urgent threat. I'm heartened to see this consensus building across party lines, even as the debate about what to actually do about it still divides many Americans and our legislators. But it's clear to me that, much like the ozone layer, if we want to "not talk about it" in 40 years, we are going to need cooperative, comprehensive global action.

For starters, I don’t think it’s convincing that “Congress not doing anything” means “Americans don’t want action.” Flawed polling aside, massive surveys from organizations like Pew show that most Americans strongly prefer that our legislators do more to address climate change. 65% of Americans say the federal government is doing too little. 79% favor tax credits to businesses for developing carbon capture and storage. 72% favor government requirements for power companies to transition to sources like wind and solar. 68% favor levying taxes on corporations based on carbon emissions. I was very happy to see Biden re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement precisely because it's the kind of thing most Americans support and the kind of global cooperative agreement that can make a real difference.

Still, I am much less enthusiastic about the idea of a "climate change emergency."

For starters, it would be precisely the kind of abuse of executive action that I've long criticized in this newsletter. I might personally believe this issue is more deserving of executive action than others, but emergency powers are not the right way to combat the problem. On top of being easily reversible by the next president, who as of today looks likely to be a Republican (and thus, someone who will probably overturn the executive orders now being considered), such action would almost certainly face legal hurdles. As the Washington Post put it, some of those legal challenges could affect future environmental regulations — meaning if Biden gets too far out over his skis and gets wrangled by the courts, it could further limit future action.

It's also terrible timing. Most of the fervor on executive actions is to press Biden into cutting back on drilling and oil exports. But politically, that kind of action would probably further depress Biden and Democrats' standing with the public at a time when gas prices are sky high. The latest price drops are a lifeline, and Biden would be foolish to throw that away by taking any executive action that could reverse the trend. If those price drops stick, he may get Sen. Manchin back into the mix. And if progressives are right about Manchin sabotaging the Biden administration, the president still has plenty of other routes to take (more on that in a minute).

It'd also be a horrible time to raid disaster relief funds and send money to renewable projects, just like it was bad business to put that money toward a border wall. Over the last few years, the increasing number of wildfires and major weather events, which are getting worse thanks to extended droughts and rising ocean temperatures, necessitate having those funding sources. While it’s true we want to address the root cause of droughts or rising ocean temperatures, it’s also true that depleting the money allocated for responding to those events is the worst way possible to fund that goal.

If there's one executive action I do support, it's what Biden has already done: Invoking the Defense Production Act to accelerate domestic manufacturing of energy technologies like solar. These are the kinds of things that can expand our clean energy and reduce prices; but it's something Biden has already done, and not something that would require emergency powers.

This administration is facing huge issues over the next few months: Inflation, navigating the war in Ukraine, trying to bring down health care costs, addressing record-high border crossings, staring down monkeypox, and still fighting Covid-19. Resources and attention are limited. The declaration of a national emergency would only create another web of lawsuits and challenges, along with terrible press, all for very little in return.

Instead, the administration should focus its energy on the issues laid out by Davenport: Publish the long-awaited EPA regulations to limit tailpipe emissions and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles (which is already happening, as prices are coming down to the level of typical new cars). Issue the new rule — one that can satisfy the latest Supreme Court ruling — that creates stricter limits on power plant pollution and compels electric utilities to lower their emissions, which is supported by a strong majority of Americans. Place major restrictions on methane, which legal experts believe would have a strong chance to withstand legal challenges. And, finally, lean into the state action, where much of the most wide-reaching climate change work is already being done.

Biden could also take the more controversial step of embracing an expansion of nuclear energy (and investment in the research of nuclear energy), which would both have huge climate benefits and draw support from across the aisle. We are already the top nuclear energy producer in the world and we could continue to lead the way. If we are truly to treat climate change as a global emergency, we need to embrace all the options we have that help get us to net-zero emissions, and beyond. I know nuclear energy is controversial, and addressing that in a separate issue is something that is probably long overdue, so please let me know your thoughts ahead of time. But personally, I don’t see a way the U.S. meets its goals that doesn’t include nuclear power.

For all the doomsday talk, the Biden administration has already taken some positive steps — through the infrastructure bill and executive action — on climate change. There are plenty of other options on the table that should be prioritized before a national emergency is used to ban the export of oil and pause offshore drilling. Especially if, as some advisors to the president and many Democrats believe, Manchin may come back to the table on climate change legislation in the fall.

Even without him, though, the president is in no position to take risky, sweeping, legally dubious executive action before he checks all the other boxes of what he can do right now.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You don't have to agree — just reply to this email and write in. If you're a paid subscriber, you can leave a comment.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why don’t the Democrats/liberals broadcast their ideas more vocally and as often as the Republican/conservatives do? Especially the President. He should get on TV and all social media the way that that other guy did.

— Kyle, Orlando, Florida

Tangle: I'm not really sure. I think there are two potential answers: One, they know some of their major positions are unpopular and they don't want to defend them publicly, which is true of both political parties. Two, President Biden has not been very good in televised interviews or in scrums with reporters, and they worry that putting him on TV all day could result in a lot of gaffes and missteps.

Frankly, I think Democrats are very weak messengers, especially compared to Donald Trump and his administration. For instance, in our "story that matters" from Monday, I noted how Biden had secured a deal for $1.5 billion of funding from Mexico on border infrastructure. That story was six days old. I am a political reporter and somehow missed it. It's possible that was just a random lapse in my own news consumption, but I scoured both of Biden's Twitter pages and found no mention of the deal.

Perhaps Democrats don't want to promote "border security" agreements. But that seems foolish to me. If it were President Trump, he would have talked about securing this money nonstop for 48 hours every chance he got. Remember, Trump promised to get Mexico to pay for his border wall but never actually got a dime. Imagine if he had secured $1.5 billion? How Biden's team hasn't leveraged this to show off to the many Americans who care about border security is astounding — he didn't even spare a single tweet.

I say this often, but yes: I agree. I think Democrats and Republicans have the majorities on their side on a few huge wedge issues, but I think Republicans are a lot better at broadcasting and articulating those positions than Democrats are. And when they make progress toward something they know is popular, they are much better at celebrating it.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

Sales of existing home prices fell 5.4% in June, dropping for a fifth consecutive month, while home prices hit a record median of $416,000. The U.S. housing market is now rapidly cooling as prices have risen alongside mortgage rates, which has slowed down home sales. The slower activity is one sign of a potential recession. “A combination of higher prices and higher mortgage rates have clearly shifted the dynamics in the housing market,” Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors chief economist, told The Wall Street Journal. “People who want to buy are simply priced out given the affordability challenges.” The Wall Street Journal has the story.


  • $8 billion. The amount of money the Biden administration has already put aside to lower household energy costs.
  • 700,000. The amount, in acres, of offshore areas in the Gulf of Mexico the Biden administration is proposing for wind energy infrastructure.
  • 3 million. The number of homes that could be powered by the wind energy projects in those areas.
  • 6%. The rise in global energy-related carbon emissions in 2021 from the previous year.
  • 36.3 billion tonnes. The amount of global CO₂ emissions in 2021, the highest annual amount ever recorded.
  • 40%. The percentage of overall CO₂ emissions growth across the globe that came from coal.

Have a nice day.

In Dubai, the world's largest vertical farm is now under construction. A city known for importing almost all of its produce due to the arid conditions and limited water is now going to construct a giant vertical farm that can grow 2 million pounds of leafy greens each year. Emirates Flight Catering is partnering with Boston-based Crop One to build a 333,000 square foot facility to house growing lettuce, arugula, spinach and mixed greens. The farm uses 95% less water than required for growing in a field, with no herbicides or pesticides. The lighting, humidity and nutrients are all tracked with artificial intelligence. Thred.com has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.