Viewpoint: Biden must disarm GOP efforts to downplay climate crisis

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (gosh, that sounds great), in remarks to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, said President Joe Biden should declare the climate crisis a national emergency in order to take action with the urgency it deserves and prevent the Republicans from using their obstructionist tactics to block legislation.

Coming after a year of record wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the Atlantic and record global warming, Biden recognizes that the climate crisis is existential, threatening democracy, health, prosperity, and if you thought immigration was a concern, imagine 200 million climate refugees as sea level swamps coastal communities. (See New York Times, I’ve Said Goodbye to ‘Normal.’ You Should, Too, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/opinion/new-normal-climate-catastrophes.html)

Biden has already demonstrated the high priority he puts on climate action – it was a constant theme in his campaign, in his cabinet appointments and in his inaugural address.

And among Biden’s first executive actions, he rolled back some of Trump’s most egregious planet-killing steps, including immediately rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, setting the stage to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal land and offshore and canceling the spate of leases Trump issued in his last days for drilling and mining on public lands, including the Arctic Wildlife Reserve.

Biden is directing the government to conserve 30 percent of all federal land and water by 2030, creating a task force to assemble a government-wide action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating new commissions and positions within the government focused on environmental justice and environmentally friendly job creation, as The New York Times reported.

And he is making climate action integral to economic recovery and his $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Both Biden and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, thank goodness, share the sentiment that “Build Back Better” fundamentally must incorporate sustainability and climate action.

Cuomo throughout these past four years has been a leader – along with California and dozens of states and cities – in picking up the reins of climate action to press forward with the principles and goals of the Paris Climate Accord.

In his State of the State and budget message this year, Cuomo brought together the need to embrace a green energy economy as fundamental to progress, especially after the devastation of COVID-19, declaring, “As the world economy resets and as change is a necessity, there is an opportunity to raise our efforts to the next level – and New York should seize this moment. We can establish ourselves as the nation’s leader for renewable energy innovation and production. And we will secure the jobs of the future right here at home for New Yorkers.”

Cuomo is proposing to complete New York’s transformation to a green economy and announced a $26 billion public-private partnership to build 100 renewable energy projects, of which 68 have already started, including 52 solar projects, 13 onshore and three offshore wind projects.

Most significant for Long Island – from the point of view of an affordable supply of electricity for homes and businesses as well as seeding a new industry – the state is beginning development of two massive offshore wind farms, each with more than 90 turbines, one 20 miles off Jones Beach and the other 60 miles off Montauk Point (neither visible from the shore).  The two will generate 2,500 megawatts (Indian Point’s two nuclear plants generated 1,072 megawatts), the largest production of renewable energy by any state in U.S. history.

Altogether, New York is looking to generate 12,400 megawatts of green energy, enough to power 6 million homes, which will create 50,000 jobs and spur $29 billion in private investment across the state. It will make the Empire State a global wind energy manufacturing powerhouse “while delivering to environmental justice communities and benefiting all New Yorkers by securing our carbon-free climate future.”

Biden seems intent on bringing the same aggressive energy on the federal level, but to succeed, he should do as Schumer said, and declare the climate crisis a national emergency because Republicans are already set to do to him what they did to Obama.  The GOP wants to rob Biden of any significant legislative success, no matter how much Americans suffer, to strengthen their play to retake the House and Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

Already, Republicans are balking at the $1.9 trillion rescue plan to immediately deal with the health and economic emergency that COVID-19 created (COVID-19 is costing the economy $1.6 trillion). Once again, we hear their the GOP mantra of “budget deficit” and “national debt,” which they conveniently ignore when it comes to $1 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthiest, but summon whenever a Democrat is in the White House having to clean up the mess left by a Republican.

Using budget reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes – as McConnell did to deprive Democrats any input whatsoever in the tax legislation that benefited the wealthiest and screwed New Yorkers’ by capping the SALT deduction – would be one way to get through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and climate-friendly infrastructure plan.

But declaring the existential climate crisis a national emergency – a tactic Trump abused to divert Defense funding to build his Border Wall – would be another way to get over McConnell’s likely obstruction. Trump demonstrated that the Defense Budget doesn’t really need $740 billion budgeted, so Biden should allocate some of that to address the national security threat the climate crisis poses.

Biden has only two years to get through the bold, important legislation needed to put America back on track to progress, and as Schumer said, show Americans that a functioning government can indeed make their lives better.

And, thankfully, in that top tier of priorities, in concert with defeating COVID-19 and rebuilding an economy and a society based on social justice and sustainability, is addressing the climate crisis.

Significantly, Biden is issuing a memorandum elevating climate change to a national security priority, but practically and politically he needs to go further and designate the climate crisis the national emergency that it is.

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