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Without the help of Congress, Biden tries to do more to address climate change


Parts of Europe are burning. The U.K. is dealing with heat so extreme that it melted a runway at the airport. And in the U.S., a heat dome has settled over the Southwest, the southern Plains and the lower Mississippi Valley, which means a hundred million Americans are under heat warnings. President Biden tried to salvage his tattered climate policy in the midst of this extreme heat by pushing billions of dollars to cities and states to help them cope better. But yesterday, he stopped just short of declaring a climate emergency. Leah Stokes, a professor of climate and energy policy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, joins us now to talk about what Biden can do about climate change. Good morning.

LEAH STOKES: Well, thanks so much for having me on.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So President Biden announced yesterday $2.3 billion for communities to help them prepare for climate disasters with cooling centers and air conditioning and new offshore wind energy leases for the Gulf of Mexico coast. What's your immediate reaction, as a climate policy expert, to this announcement?

STOKES: Well, the reason why President Biden went to Massachusetts to make those announcements was because the climate negotiations in Congress fell apart last week...

FADEL: Right.

STOKES: ...When Senator Manchin walked away from the negotiating table. So, you know, President Biden is trying to deliver an alternative to that. And he made it clear that he's ready to use executive action. But we know that, you know, there really is no substitute for legislation. The president can do a lot, but he can't create $350 billion in clean energy and climate investments, which is what was on the table before Senator Manchin walked away.

FADEL: So what can he do without Congress? Because that door, at least for now, is closed.

STOKES: Well, President Biden has a lot of authorities that he can use. He can, for example, use the Clean Air Act, a bedrock law that dates back decades, to cut carbon pollution from power plants, whether that's new power plants or existing ones. He can also allow California to move ahead to set their own rules for clean trucks. And he can also set those same rules nationally for the other states in the country. There are other things like, for example, blocking permits for fossil fuel developments, including one that runs right through West Virginia, a pipeline that Senator Manchin really wanted to get approved. And if Senator Manchin's not willing to do the right thing on climate for his grandchildren, for example, then, you know, the permit for that pipeline really should not be approved.

FADEL: Now, there are downsides - right? - to relying on executive action.

STOKES: Yes, there are. The reason why we need Congress to act is because we want to be building made-in-America jobs. We want to be leading, for the 21st century, technologies that we know we're going to be using - solar and wind, batteries - even some technologies that Senator Manchin has claimed to support, like hydrogen and carbon capture and sequestration. You know, without Congress acting and investing dollars, we aren't going to have those technologies built in the United States. And there are even parts of the infrastructure bill that Senator Manchin championed that could become stranded if Congress does not pass another climate investment package.

FADEL: Now, what could President Biden do to get Senator Manchin back to the negotiating table here?

STOKES: We really need Senator Manchin to wake up. And, you know, it's very frustrating because not only is this the right thing for his constituents, in terms of creating jobs in West Virginia in the clean energy economy, you know, it's also just the right thing morally. We know we have to act on the climate crisis. It's on our doorstep right now. And to walk away from the deal that Congress has negotiated for the last 18 months is really just unconscionable.

FADEL: But the reality is the U.S. isn't acting. If Biden can't get a climate bill through Congress, where does that leave the United States in relation to climate goals?

STOKES: Well, President Biden can still do a lot when it comes to trying to cut carbon pollution. He can use the Clean Air Act to target pollution from power plants and heavy industry. He can make sure we have clean car standards and clean truck standards. He can go ahead on trying to block permits for new fossil fuel development in the United States. And, you know, he can do other things, too, that will really make a difference. It's not enough, and it is not a substitute for what Congress needs to be doing, which is delivering dollars to invest in the clean energy future - you know, the economy we really need. But President Biden understands that climate change is happening now, and I'm sure that he wants to deliver the livable planet that we all need.

FADEL: Leah Stokes, a professor of climate and energy policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thank you so much for joining us.

STOKES: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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