We Need Bold Presidential Action on Climate Change | Opinion

The collapse, at least for the moment, of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill creates a significant opportunity for bold presidential action on climate. Congress may be a dead end. But there is another road to walk down. Climate advocates and President Joe Biden must walk down that road if we are to have any hope of averting a climate catastrophe.

It ought to be clear to everyone that transformative climate action by Congress isn't in the cards. Even if the BBB bill gets resurrected, it will be even less ambitious on climate than it is now. That's nowhere close to good enough.

The system of government we have in the United States cedes extraordinary power to the president and his administration. Although every one of these actions would be challenged in court and some might even be overturned, there is credible legal authority for the Biden administration to take the following actions as well as many more actions along these lines:

—impose a ban on crude oil exports and gas exports;

—prevent issuance of every permit for every proposed project that would have a negative impact on the climate;

—greatly curtail leasing of oil, gas and coal on federal land, including land that is under water;

—develop a robust market for climate-friendly products, including electric cars and trucks, by changing federal procurement rules for the military and other units of government;

—through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—an agency that is formally independent but on which Democrats hold a majority—require a radical shift away from electricity generated by fossil fuels to electricity generated by renewables;

—promulgate rules that require that any building developed with federal money is energy efficient and does not use gas.

The climate crisis is here. Things are getting worse. We must turn things around.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks during a signing ceremony. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

There are many reasons why climate advocates have failed to such a great extent at the national level, even as we have made enormous progress fighting at the state and local levels.

In Congress, particularly in the Senate, both the rules, such as the filibuster and the system of representation, with two senators for each state regardless of population, are stacked against us. Yet we've been tremendously successful fighting, defeating and delaying huge capital-intensive projects. Just this year, the Keystone XL Pipeline and the PennEast Pipeline went down to defeat. Last year, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled. The Formosa Plastics factory, slated to be built in St. James Parish, La., has been delayed and is in serious trouble. In Texas, liquefied natural gas export terminals face substantial delays.

One issue that some of us have encountered regarding climate advocacy is that traditional environmentalists are not among the most credible spokespeople for bold climate action. Everyone seems to know this. Still, traditional environmentalists sometimes don't seem able to get out of the road and let others take the lead. They need to step to the side.

Plenty of people who are not traditional environmentalists are also worried about climate change. Many of them are doing brilliant work.

This includes retired generals and admirals who understand the national security implications of climate change better than anyone. It includes leading figures in the clergy, such as Pope Francis.

And it includes environmental justice advocates. Many of these advocates were laboring in obscurity for years. At least to some extent, they have found receptive ears among highly-placed officials in the Biden administration. Now, more than ever, the Biden administration needs to listen to those who have been most affected by climate change and will be most affected by it, unfortunately, in the very near future.

Congress may be a dead end for transformative climate action. But other roads and avenues are waiting for our footsteps. The most important of these is Pennsylvania Avenue. And the most important address on Pennsylvania Avenue is 1600. We need bold action from that address right now.

Larry Shapiro is associate director for program development at the Rockefeller Family Fund.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.