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President Biden commemorated Earth Day on Friday by unveiling a raft of new policies to combat deforestation, including the signing of an executive order that safeguards old-growth forests on federal lands.
“All around this country there used to be a lot more forests like this,” Biden said in a speech at Seattle’s Seward Park, where he was flanked by local officials including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, both Democrats. “We want desperately to protect what we have [left].”
Every year, American forests absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but they are increasingly vulnerable to wildfires due to warmer temperatures and severe droughts caused by global warming.
“Our forests are our planet's lungs,” Biden said Friday. “I’ve flown over every major wildfire in this country with FEMA — not every, there’s a couple I didn’t, but the vast majority — and it’s devastating: here, Idaho, I didn’t get to Oregon, but California, it’s absolutely devastating.”
The president also made an overarching case for stepping up environmental conservation.
“We’re going to triple the federal commitment to [Seattle’s] Link light rail system,” Biden said. He also pledged that all U.S. vehicles will one day be electric, noting that his administration is spending billions of dollars on building 500,000 electric charging stations under the infrastructure law.
“The crisis on the environment has become so obvious — with the notable exception of the former president — that we have the opportunity to do things we couldn’t have done five or 10 years ago,” he said.
The mild dig at his predecessor, Donald Trump, who has referred to the science on climate change as a “hoax,” was typical of the loose, slightly jocular style of Biden’s address, which was filled with seemingly off-the-cuff quips.
“By the way, windmills don’t cause cancer,” he noted at one point, to laughs, in reference to Trump’s stance against wind power.
The president went on to boast about all the environmental progress his administration has made, with only passing acknowledgment that much of his agenda for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change has been stymied by the Senate.
“With all the disappointments we faced, the U.S. deployed the most solar, wind and battery storage energy in U.S. history,” Biden said. He went on to list many of the clean energy and transportation investments contained in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — including tens of billions of dollars for freight rail and public transportation — without mention of the offsetting subsidies for fossil fuel infrastructure that some progressives in Congress think will largely negate the law’s climate benefits.
Instead, Biden sought to emphasize the ongoing transition of the nation’s energy sector, offering a personal anecdote along the way.
“I’m an automobile buff, I have a ‘68 Corvette that does nothing but pollute the air, but I don’t drive it very much,” he said, before joking that he was sorry to discover the electric Ford F-150 pickup truck he test-drove was faster than his Corvette.
Biden also recounted how, in the run-up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last November, he led the formation of an international coalition to reduce emissions of methane, an especially potent short-term greenhouse gas, and that he restored federal protection to the Bears Ears Monument in Utah.
In keeping with Democratic custom, Biden proceeded to make the case that accelerating the transition to clean energy will create high-paying industrial jobs. Discussing the Pennsylvania region where he was raised, he said, “They’re manufacturing solar panels where they once dug for coal.”
Eventually, the president did discuss the centerpiece of his climate agenda — the more than $500 billion in clean energy and electric vehicle investment he proposed and the House of Representatives passed — that remains stuck in the Senate.
“Cities and states are acting. Businesses are acting. I’m acting. We need Congress to act as well,” Biden said.
“There are two senators that occasionally don’t vote with me,” he acknowledged, referring to Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats, whose opposition has stopped his Build Back Better proposal from passing.
Biden argued, however, that he has done a good job of unifying his party, noting that 48 of the 50 Democrats in the Senate vote with him 94% of the time. Instead, he said, it is unified opposition from Republicans — who in the previous century were known to sometimes back environmental legislation — that has blocked his agenda.
“This ain’t your father’s Republican Party,” Biden said. “This is the MAGA party now.”
“I've had up to six [GOP senators] come to me and say, ‘Joe, I want to work with you, but I’ll be primaried, I’ll lose my race,’” he added.
Biden made no explicit mention of other recent setbacks, such as his administration's restart of oil and gas drilling lease sales on federal land due to an adverse court ruling, or other measures his administration is taking to boost oil and gas exports to Europe to bolster economic sanctions on Russia.
In February, a coalition of more than 70 environmental advocacy groups launched a campaign calling on the president to create an inventory of old-growth and mature trees — which are the most valuable trees for combating climate change because they store the most carbon — on federal land and then develop a plan to protect them. The executive order signed Friday morning will do just that.
“These are the forests that store, sequester incredible amounts of carbon,” Biden said on Friday. “The forests that are home to majestic trees.”
The executive order will also develop 2030 reforestation targets for federal agencies, using funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “We’re going to plant 1.2 billion trees across the country to begin the vital work of reforesting America ... including in our cities and on our city streets.”
The order also directs agencies to “boost federal cone and seed collection and seedling nursery capacity” and to develop a report on how to reduce or eliminate U.S. purchases of agricultural commodities like soy and beef “grown on illegally or recently deforested land.”
“We’re also showing this moment of maximum threat and urgency can also be a moment of enormous hope and enormous opportunity,” Biden said.