Tackling the Climate Emergency Now

Five Things That Can Happen Now

by Ashley Thomson

July 8, 2022

Five Things That Can Happen Now

© Tim Aubry / Greenpeace

Droughts, record heat waves, and stronger, more frequent storms. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, and we need to act like it. In 2018, air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and gas was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. The research echoes what frontline communities have been saying all along: we need to get off fossil fuels as fast as we can to avert the worst case scenarios of suffering from the climate crisis

It’s a tough year for the climate and impacted communities all over the world. Not only has Congress yet to pass a transformative climate change bill, but we’re also dealing with a radical, partisan Supreme Court that’s chipping away at settled law and broadly-understood powers of agencies. This includes the recent decision to limit the scope of power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the West Virginia vs. Environmental Protection Agency ruling.

While it is still awful news, it is crucial to know that there is still a lot that the EPA can do, and, by extension, there’s a lot that President Biden can do.

Following the recent Court’s decision, President Biden said: “I will take action. My Administration will continue using lawful executive authority, including the EPA’s legally-upheld authorities, to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis.”

We’re done waiting, President Biden. You and your administration must act right now.

1. Declare a Climate Emergency 

Congress and the Courts are failing to protect our communities from the climate crisis and it’s time for President Biden to be the leader we need. By declaring a climate emergency, President Biden unlocks an expanded set of powers under the National Emergencies Act and other federal laws. The move is supported by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). 

What could happen under a climate emergency? There’s many actions the administration could take, here’s a few that would have immediate impact: 

  • 1) Work with Secretary of the Interior Haaland to end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters. This would protect our water and land from any more pollution, contamination, or destruction at the hands of Big Oil.
  • 2) Halt the export of crude oil through reinstating the export ban. The ban existed for forty years, and since it was lifted US exports have skyrocketed, as have associated greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 3) Expand on the June 6th order under Defense Production Act to spur domestic manufacturing and create millions of good-paying union jobs; President Biden must continue to work with Congress to ensure the energy transition is fully funded, investing in domestic energy efficiency and renewable energy markets to build domestic renewable energy markets and build the stable, affordable, and reliable energy sources of the future as we continue to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Greenpeace’s Anusha Narayanan, left, and Janet Redman stand on the White House sidewalk risking arrest for a Climate Emergency.

2. Confront the Fossil Fuel Influence Directly and Pass a Climate Bill  

The United States Senate is completely overrun with political cronies of the fossil fuel industry. There are dozens of politicians across both parties – with Senator Joe Manchin the current ringleader. He’s received $917,027 from 2017 – 2022 in fossil fuel donations, and he has personally gotten rich off coal in West Virginia. He’s giving the industry exactly what they paid for: stopping any meaningful action against oil and gas. President Biden and Majority Leader Schumer are currently working behind closed-doors to get some version of the Build Back Better Act passed. This must happen, and it must include the environmental justice and frontline community funding, and worker protection measures that the original version of the bill included. This is a crucial part of President Biden’s environmental justice agenda. 

The impacts of President Biden’s request for Congress to temporarily suspend the Federal tax on gasoline on the price of gas are questionable. A far better answer to Big Oil’s greed would be passing Rep. Khanna’s and Sen. Whitehouse’s Big Oil Windfall Profits tax that would tax corporate profiteering and provide consumers with money back in their pockets via a quarterly rebate. 

Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have raked in billions of dollars while drivers are saddled with high gas prices. We must target the root cause: the power of the fossil fuel industry that puts profit over people. While the Big Oil Windfall profits tax is a short-term act, it would have meaningful and long-term impacts on shifting power away from the industry and empowering everyday people.

Greenpeace US COO Ebony Martin addresses a Green New Deal Network (GNDN) rally.

3. Use the Clean Air Act 

The West Virginia vs. EPA ruling concerned one narrow tool within the Environmental Protection Agency’s toolkit. The Biden administration still has many tools still at their disposal that are ready for immediate use.

The EPA can continue to regulate emissions through National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAQQs) and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) standards. One action that’s currently under consideration is updating the EPA’s standards on other specific pollutants, including a number of  toxic substances and particulate matter.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus asked Biden to direct the EPA to: 

  • “Protect Americans’ health and save tens of thousands of lives annually by updating and strengthening outdated standards limiting particulate matter, ozone, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, coal ash, and tailpipe emissions, as well as lead and copper rules preventing contamination of drinking water. 
  • Finalize new methane standards for new and existing oil and gas operations. Make these standards strong enough to cut methane pollution at least 65 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. 
  • Direct the EPA to designate greenhouse pollutants as criteria air pollutants and set a science-based national pollution cap under the Clean Air Act.”

While many of the implications of the WV vs. EPA decision are still being assessed, many of the directives listed here should remain within the authority of the EPA.

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. Emerald Isle is a town on Bogue Banks Island, part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. The Bogue Inlet Pier is a popular fishing spot, with views of the Atlantic Ocean.

4. Invest in a Just Transition Now  

As we transition to a clean, renewable energy system that creates union jobs and protects communities, we need to ensure that justice and equity are embedded throughout the process. This means ensuring at least 40% of benefits and funding are directed to Environmental Justice communities – EJ40. Investment should be particularly directed into Black, Indigenous, and communities of color that are subject to disproportionate pollution from existing fossil fuel infrastructure and other historical pollution. 

A just transition also means leveraging all tools available in the Federal government to invest in creating new, good, family-sustaining, union-jobs as we build the industries of the future. This is crucial to ensure there is a plan for a better future for communities that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel racism.

The Biden administration has voiced their support for creating good union jobs and for environmental justice, and some of this is already being incorporated into the clean energy executive actions from June. For example, the Department of Energy will be hosting a series of workshops in implementing the Defense Production Act for clean energy manufacturing that will include frontline communities, EJ leaders, labor unions and workers to help direct the implementation forward. Both EJ40 and strong labor standards must be central aspects of a just transition, but have yet to be fully defined.

At the same time, the Biden Administration’s track record on his Environmental Justice 40 initiative has been a disappointment for many. The administration must ensure it’s living up to its commitments and promises to the communities that have been affected the most. “Environmental Justice” must be embedded as a core guiding principle, not just a buzzword.


5. Follow the Money 

Money, money, money. The US financial system is the veins through which the heart of the economy beats, and right now the entire body is sick and diseased. The Biden administration can make the financial system more equitable and effective by confronting the ongoing link between finance and the fossil fuel industry.

The first step is passing a strong climate disclosure rule through the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Admittedly, this is pretty boring stuff, but it’s a major part of reorienting financial flows away from the bad, planet destroying stuff, and towards the good sustainable future we all deserve. This would require publicly-traded companies to report on the risks that climate change poses to their business and the risks their operations pose to the climate. This is of the utmost importance, as it would provide much needed transparency on how businesses are willingly sacrificing the climate to boost their quarterly profits. This disclosure rule would give investors the choice to shift their investments based on the real impacts businesses have on the environment, rather than the greenwashed reports and ad campaigns they put out. 

The US is lagging behind the rest of the world regarding regulating the climate impact of investments, and there is a lot more distance the Biden Administration can cover. Earlier this year, Sarah Bloom Raskin – an attorney, regulator, and former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury who has written on the powers the Federal Reserve has to stimulate the transition to a clean, green economy – was forced to withdraw her nomination to the Federal Reserve Board as a result of an oil and gas industry campaign against her. 

This opposition demonstrates power the Federal Reserve has to act on climate, otherwise the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t have tanked her nomination. The Federal Reserve has a mandate to maintain the financial stability of the United States, and its failure to fully incorporate the risks of, say, a dying planet and ecosystem collapse are huge gaps in its responsibility. Under the right leadership, the Federal Reserve would be able to take actions that shift the flows of finance away from the unstable and towards the stable – it just so happens that averting climate disaster would have a positive effect on the financial industry.

Beyond the US financial system, President Biden can and should do more with the public dollars he has control of. This includes curtailing private investment into fossil fuel projects abroad, and working to use all levers of the government to end domestic and international fossil fuel subsidies. These are things President Biden and numerous members of Congress have promised to deliver, but have failed to do so up until this point.

The fight is not over yet…

These are only some of the immediate tools the Biden administration and Congress can immediately use in the fight for climate justice and equitable climate policy. The fight is far from over. Remember, the Federal government is only one pathway towards the future we want to see. Join us in the fight. See if there’s a local Greenpeace Action pod in your area or start one with your friends. Actions in your own community, especially when paired with pushing our top leaders to do more, are an extremely effective way to get to our end goal of a more just, equitable, and green future.

Ashley Thomson

By Ashley Thomson

Ashley is a Campaigner on the Climate team at Greenpeace USA where she works on Federal climate policy. For the past several years she's worked on global climate policy for commodity supply chains, and has organized locally in DC for environmental justice and equity.

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