President Biden came out swinging on climate change in his first two weeks in office. In a series of executive actions, he ensured the United States would rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord, freeze new oil and gas leases on federal lands, invest in environmental justice programs, purchase American-made zero-emissions vehicles and clean sources of power, and impose rigorous standards for the buildings and infrastructure it funds in flood zones. But if the country is to meet the ambitious targets the new president has set to slash planet-warming emissions — and regain the credibility to nudge other nations to do the same — a dysfunctional Congress still needs to step up.
Biden campaigned on an agenda to make the electricity sector free of carbon emissions by 2035 and to bring the US economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — absorbing through farms, forests, and technology as much as it pollutes — by 2050. Meeting those targets, and using the leverage it gives the United States to persuade other countries to do the same, is nothing short of a necessity if the world hopes to prevent economic and humanitarian catastrophe. But it’s also a tall order for an economy that still heavily relies on oil, coal, and natural gas.
Real progress can be made on climate change by the White House taking unilateral action — including increasing fuel emissions standards to address the country’s primary source of carbon dioxide pollution, transportation, and cracking down on the methane leaks from oil and gas operations that contribute significantly to our warming of the planet. But cleaning up the electricity sector permanently so that it relies on all emissions-free sources would be best accomplished by Congress. US legislation on climate change would also show the world that whatever steps taken during the Biden years aren’t just going to be reversed by the next Republican president. Reforms codified in law would strengthen the United States’ hand in pushing for global climate action.
While the Biden White House can regulate pollution from the power sector through the Environmental Protection Agency without Congress, such efforts, including a revival of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, would probably face challenges in the courts, where Republican appointees dominate the judiciary. A more robust response to fighting the climate crisis would be for lawmakers to adopt a national standard for clean electricity generation or a carbon pricing policy. Since there have been bipartisan and industry-supported proposals to adopt both a clean power standard and carbon pricing, it should not require a miracle for enough senators to get behind them.
Every part of the United States is seeing the impacts of climate change these days — a harbinger of worse disasters to come. That means every member of Congress can serve their constituency by addressing it. Heat waves sweep the Midwest, South, and Southwest in summer. Droughts parch farms from coast to coast. Destructive, deadly storms pummel coastlines and river valleys.
Averting climate catastrophe sooner rather than later, much like staving off a pandemic before it spreads, also makes good fiscal sense. In 2020, more than 20 climate and extreme weather disasters came at a cost of more than a billion dollars, shattering previous years’ records. Worldwide, extreme weather disasters cost more than $210 billion last year, according to the reinsurer Munich Re, due mostly to the rise in wildfire and hurricane damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now proposing to sharply increase the amount of money it spends making communities more resilient to climate disasters instead of merely cleaning them up at great expense — something that the White House can approve without Congress, and a proactive approach that should become a guiding principle for climate policy across government.
Some members of Congress, of course, also have constituents employed in the fossil fuel industry, including Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat in charge of the Senate energy and natural resources committee. Considering the way that coal mines and coal-fired power plants have been shedding jobs because of competition from cheaper and cleaner power sources, politicians from those regions ought to recognize that their future requires welcoming innovation.
When President Biden announced his administration’s initial climate change actions on Jan. 27, he emphasized the importance of creating new American manufacturing jobs and helping people employed by the fossil fuel industry to transition into them. Critical to getting Congress and enough American people on board with his plans to clean up the electricity sector will be ensuring not just that there are more jobs, but also that there are enough jobs in places that will need them most as the country weans itself off fossil fuels. Plans and investments that take job creation from aspirational politics to reality should remain high on the White House’s agenda and should be something Congress probes as it considers climate policy.
And while even the best-designed jobs programs are unlikely to prevent members of Congress who are beholden to fossil fuel industry financiers from blocking wise policy on climate change, the trifecta of costly climate disasters, growth in clean energy manufacturing and construction jobs, and global market forces might create momentum for enough senators to overcome longstanding inertia on Capitol Hill on climate issues.
If it doesn’t, the Biden White House should continue to pursue aggressive action on climate change through executive orders, aid to other nations, shifting of agency priorities, and procurement of climate-friendly technology like better batteries for storing solar and wind power. The president and congressional Democrats should also continue to support clean energy and resilient infrastructure through COVID-19 relief bills and the budget. Meanwhile, the American public should be aware that while a climate president is a good thing, a Congress that cares enough about protecting American communities to finally act would be far better.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.