The backdrop was the shell of an old coal-fired power plant, the temperature was in the mid-90s, there wasn’t a shade tree in sight, and the audience wilted in the unforgiving heat.
In other words, an ideal setting for President Biden to call yet again for action on climate change, describing it as an emergency that he will act on, regardless of whether Congress is on board.
But, as he excoriated Congress’s lack of action on his ambitious climate legislation and vowed that he would “not take no for an answer” on climate, Biden stopped short of the one act that Democrats have been increasingly calling for: officially declaring climate change a national emergency.
Still, Biden pledged a raft of executive actions that would address extreme heat, invest in environmental justice communities, and speed up the development of offshore wind.
“The health of our citizens and our communities is literally at stake,” he said, addressing an invited group of environmental advocates, business leaders, and local officials from behind his trademark aviators, with little but sea, sky, and the desolate shell of a former coal plant around him.
Climate change, he added, echoing UN Secretary-General António Guterres, is a “code red for humanity.”
But an emergency declaration would unlock more executive powers as well as additional funds for Biden to more strenuously address the climate crisis, legal experts and advocates said. It’s also among the most meaningful steps that the president can take in the face of both a Supreme Court and a Congress that have hamstrung his efforts.
Compared to the reach of an official declaration, as well as that of his larger goal of a rapid transition of the US energy sector away from fossil fuels, the actions announced Wednesday, focused on bolstering climate resilience and the offshore wind industry, were modest in scope.
“We’re in desperate need of bold leadership, not tinkering around the edges while the world burns,” said Collin Rees, United States program manager at environmental research organization Oil Change International.
Bill McKibben, author and environmental activist, said Wednesday’s announcements were “fine — and also small-bore in the face of a truly raging crisis.”
But while falling far short of the scale and ambition of Biden’s promise to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and adhere to the goals of the Paris Agreement, Mindy Lubber, president of CERES, a Boston-based environmental group that promotes climate action in the corporate world, said she was grateful at least something was happening.
“One step at a time is better than no steps, and we’re glad to see the action,” she said.
The president’s visit came amid heat waves in Massachusetts and around the world and one week after the failure of Democrats’ latest attempts to include far-reaching climate measures in the administration’s Build Back Better bill. It also followed a major Supreme Court decision last month that hamstrung his administration’s ability to regulate power plant emissions.
Massachusetts, a blue state that remains relatively friendly territory for the president, is among the states that have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
And Brayton Point was an almost poetic spot to highlight the kind of massive transformation called for by the climate crisis. The shuttered coal plant in Somerset has been transformed into a manufacturing and staging hub for offshore wind. Where once there were emissions that hurt human health and the planet, the president pointed out, now there is opportunity.
The punishing heat didn’t hurt the symbolism, either.
Over in the press tent, cellphones and laptops unceremoniously shut down as they overheated. The water cooler went dry, and one journalist vomited a few times before a brief respite in the shade and then getting back to work.
Biden told the crowd that the facility is “on the frontier of clean energy in America,” noting it’s on track to employ as many workers in the offshore wind industry as it once did burning coal.
Among the new climate-focused executive actions the president announced was an effort to bolster the domestic offshore wind industry, building on a formal offshore wind partnership with East Coast governors and labor leaders launched last month.
“We’re going to make sure that the ocean is open for the clean energy of our future,” Biden said.
One attendee was Michael Brown, chief executive of Mayflower Wind, which by the end of this decade plans to have some 1200 megawatts of offshore wind connecting to the grid via Brayton Point. Brown said he was encouraged by Biden’s pledge to streamline permitting for offshore wind and hopes to see federal investments in ports and increased transmission as well.
Administration officials said in advance of the event said Biden would also direct the Interior Department to propose the first-ever wind energy areas in the Gulf of Mexico. And he’ll call on his administration to advance offshore wind energy efforts off the mid- and southern Atlantic coast and off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
In addition, Biden announced he would inject $2.3 billion into a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that helps support hazard mitigation programs in communities hurt by climate change and expand a federal program to fund community cooling centers and efficient air conditioners, helping “millions of people suffering from extreme heat at home.”
And he touted the efforts of his labor secretary, former Boston mayor Marty Walsh — who, he joked, “talks funny” and is a “helluva guy,” — to launch a program to help protect workers from heat illness and injuries.
James Coleman, an energy expert at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said he was encouraged by Biden’s pledge to streamline the federal permitting process, adding that he’d like to see that extended beyond the wind industry. “If the president wants to reduce energy prices, he should work with Congress to ease permitting burdens for all energy projects,” he said.
And some locals turned out to trumpet their opposition to the president. Heidi DeMello, a 57-year-old lifelong Somerset resident who was among about a dozen Trump supporters standing out in the heat to protest Biden’s visit, called climate change a hoax. Asked why she was out protesting, she answered: “Freedom. Stolen election. New World Order president.”
But asked what she thought of the closure of the coal plant, where relatives of hers worked, and the coming offshore wind hub, she acknowledged the economics could benefit the area.
”I just want what’s good for everybody,” she said. “For people here, for people everywhere.”
Protesters from the climate action group Extinction Rebellion also turned out to greet Biden and wave signs urging him to declare a climate emergency.
Still, his messaged buoyed some climate advocates. Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts, said Biden “really hit the nail on the head with his talk about the symbolic nature of this site.”
“This place really does show the power of local action,” he said. “The transformation we envisioned is happening.”
And the state Legislature is pushing for more. On Wednesday evening, lawmakers announced the completion of a major climate bill that will help drive the offshore wind boom and address emissions from vehicles and buildings across the state, including a measure that would allow 10 communities to ban fossil fuel hookups for new buildings.
The global effects of the climate crisis are on full display this week, with parts of Europe, Central Asia, and the United States blanketed in sweltering heat. The United Kingdom saw its hottest temperature of all time on Tuesday, and fires are raging across the London area, as well as in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Meanwhile, extreme rainfall and floods in China killed 18 people as of Sunday, and persistent drought is ravaging the Horn of Africa.
Somerset was also under a heat advisory from the National Weather Service on Wednesday, as is much of the state.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Ben Hellerstein, the state director of Environment Massachusetts.