Democrats want Biden to go ‘beast mode’ on climate change. Here’s what he could do without Congress

July 20, 2022, 9:46 AM UTC
President Biden says he will take strong executive action on climate change Wednesday, after Senator Manchin refused to back climate funding plans.
Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Good morning.

I won’t say too much about the heat waves sweeping Europe, China, North America and other places today, because Fortune has already provided some excellent coverage on the climatic disaster (see below.) 

Suffice to say, some people don’t seem to grasp that heat waves are not simply temperatures rising as we enter summer: they are temperatures soaring beyond what a region would normally anticipate at that time of year. That means the destructive nature of a heat wave isn’t just about how hot it is; it’s about how unprepared an area is to endure it, too. And climate change is causing heat waves to grow more intense and more frequent—at a rate far faster than humans are adapting to them.

With that in mind, eyes in the U.S. will be on President Joe Biden today, as the bruised leader has vowed to announce “strong executive action” on climate change following last week’s rug pull by Sen. Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat informed Party negotiators he would not support a bill aimed at funding Biden’s climate agenda.

“If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” Biden said last week. 

But hopes that the president would declare climate change a national emergency—when he speaks from a former coal plant turned power cable manufacturing site for wind turbines, a symbol of how clean power will produce jobs for America—have already been dashed by the White House.

“It’s not on the table for this week,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.

Declaring a national climate emergency would grant the executive office new powers to tackle climate change. Under a national emergency, the president could redirect federal funds to tackle climate issues, such as by providing emergency financing for the construction of green energy infrastructure. The National Emergencies Act would also allow the president to impose a ban on fossil fuel exports and halt offshore drilling. 

But those measures would give short-term relief. The unlocked federal funding would run out and could be revoked when a new president is elected. Long-term financing will still require Congressional approval. Blocking fossil fuel exports would also do little to limit carbon emissions: the U.S. would just consume more at home. Such an embargo would also exacerbate the current energy crisis in Europe, where the EU is relying on U.S. gas shipments to help offset disruption from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Declaring a climate emergency doesn’t lower any emissions,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D–R.I.) said Tuesday. “You have to move on to acting like it’s a climate emergency, and I’m looking forward to those steps.”

So if Biden isn’t declaring a climate emergency today, what actions will he announce instead?

For one, Biden could announce the hobbled Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with plans to restrict methane, mercury and other pollutant emissions at power plants—an indirect means of curtailing fossil fuel use. 

Or the president could set out plans for a phased drawdown of leasing federal land for oil and gas exploration, even though Biden only recently resumed lease sales, after suspending them when he took office. Biden might also announce new tax incentives for developing nuclear power and (much less usefully) carbon capture projects.

Sen. Whitehouse has a short Twitter thread of “executive Beast Mode” action he says Biden could take without Congress. But, whatever Biden announces, unilateral action from the executive branch will never be enough to tackle climate change. The escalating crisis requires a prolonged, all-system response. Congress will have to be brought onboard.

Eamon Barrett


Now is not the time to be fearful

Climate scientist Corinne Le Quéré, the former lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, takes a patiently optimistic tone in her interview with the FT on the future of the global transition to net zero carbon emissions. That doesn’t mean everything is heading in the right direction. For one, Le Quéré says, the U.K. (where she is based) is placing too much hope on future technologies saving us from destruction and too few resources on reducing waste and deploying the technology we already have. But Le Quéré sees more opportunity than failure. “Now is not the time to be fearful, now is the time to be forceful and say: we know what to do…We have loads of solutions.” FT

A wet-bulb

Heat and humidity are a deadly combination. When both are high, it becomes increasingly hard for humans to cool down, as the ambient “wet-bulb temperature” increases. A “wet-bulb temperature” is the lowest temperature at which an object can cool down through evaporation. High humidity increases the volume of water in the air, leaving less room for evaporation, and increasing the wet-bulb temperature. For humans, our optimal wet-bulb temperature is about 95F (35C), as we sweat to cool down. But climate change is causing heat and humidity to conflate more often, creating wet-bulb temperatures beyond our threshold. NASA

Lithium in Xinjiang

Mining operations to produce the metals and materials vital for electric car batteries are already steeped in allegations of environmental degradation and human rights abuses. Now Ganfeng Lithium, China’s top producer of the battery metal and a key supplier to electric vehicle makers including Tesla and BMW is courting more controversy by exploring an expansion into China’s Xinjiang province. The U.S. prohibits the import of goods produced in Xinjiang, due to persistent allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the area. Bloomberg

Methane Partnership 2.0

Last Thursday, U.S. oil companies ConocoPhillips, Pioneer Natural Resources and Devon Energy Corp announced they had signed up to the Europe-led Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, an initiative that provides a framework for reporting on methane emissions. The companies' ascent to the UN initiative was brokered by a perhaps unlikely ally: Engine No. 1 CEO, Christopher James, who last year led a successful proxy battle against ExxonMobil. WSJ


U.S. gas prices just hit a 2-month low—the national average is now under $4.50 a gallon by Will Daniel

The psychology of why heat waves don’t capture our attention the way other natural disasters do by Eamon Barrett

Why leaders see climate action as the future of competitive advantage by Hubertus Meinecke

To solve the water crisis, companies are increasingly turning to A.I. by Tony Lystra

Sustainable architecture requires greater scale to have an impact on the planet, experts warn by Marcus Baram

Europe’s new normal: Scorching summer followed by ‘long, hard winter,’ as IEA tells it to cut Russian gas, or else by Yvonne Lau

‘That’s not how the oil market works’: Price cap on Russian oil could push the price to $140 a barrel, warns energy research director by Sophie Mellor

‘Collective action or collective suicide’: UN chief issues a stark warning as heatwaves sear Europe, the U.S. and China by David Meyer



How much will it cost to tackle climate change, transition to a low-carbon economy, and keep global warming to an average increase of little over 1.5°C? Just 2% of global annual GDP, says author Yuval Noah Harari, co-founder of environmental think tank and investment fund Sapienship. That 2% figure is incredibly accessible. According to Harari, the U.S. spent 3.5% of its GDP on bailing out banks during the 2008 financial crisis. Globally, governments spent roughly 14% of GDP fighting COVID during the first nine months of 2020. “Humanity has enormous resources under its command and by deploying them wisely we can still prevent ecological cataclysm,” Harari says.

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