Biden announces new measures to protect Americans from extreme heat

Biden announces new measures to protect Americans from extreme heat

Critics say steps positive but modest as US president stops short of declaring climate emergency

Dharna NoorThu 27 Jul 2023 13.35 EDT

Joe Biden announced new steps on Thursday to help Americans face the “existential threat of climate change” and extreme heat.

“We want the American people to know help is here, and we’re gonna make it available to anyone who needs it,” the president said, speaking in a summer of record-breaking temperatures in the US and globally.

The new measures will shield workers from high temperatures, improve weather forecasting, strengthen access to drinking water and otherwise improve heat resilience, Biden said.

Experts described the measures as positive but modest, and the president stopped short of declaring a climate emergency or directly addressing the need to phase out planet-heating fossil fuels.

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Biden directed the Department of Labor to issue a hazard alert for workplaces such as farms and construction sites, where workers face a higher risk amid high temperatures. Heat has killed 436 workers since 2011, according to federal statistics.

Sectors including agriculture and construction also frequently see heat-related safety violations, so the labor department will also increase its inspections of high-risk workplaces, Biden said. He also took a veiled swipe at Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, who this year banned his state’s municipalities from requiring workers be offered water breaks.

“We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions and we will, and those states where they do not, I’m going to be calling them out,” Biden said, later adding that when he played football as a young man, coaches would be fired for refusing players water breaks.

The president also said the US Forest Service will award more than $1bn in grants to help cities and towns plant trees, “so families have a place to go to cool off”. Tree coverage can help lower temperatures in urban areas by more than 15 degrees fahrenheit.

Biden added that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had set aside billions to help communities make their buildings more energy efficient and to open cooling centers. And he said the Department of Interior was boosting funding to “expand water storage capacity in the western states”, referring to the earmarking of $152m for water storage and pipelines for the drought-stricken western states, according to the White House.

Biden also highlighted $7m in funding from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will use to improve weather forecasts, thereby improving preparedness for extreme weather like heatwaves.

The press conference, held from a White House auditorium, came as nearly 40% of Americans face heat advisories, according to the National Weather Service.

The president was joined virtually by mayors of Phoenix, Arizona and San Antonio, Texas, which have both roasted under scorching temperatures this summer.

Phoenix has experienced 27 consecutive days where temperatures crossed 110F (43C), while San Antonio saw temperatures cross 100F (38C) on at least 15 straight days.

“We feel like we are very much on the frontlines of climate change,” said Phoenix’s mayor, Kate Gallego.

Gallego has been pushing Congress to pass a bill adding extreme heat to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s list of major disaster qualifying events, which would allow states to be reimbursed opening cooling centers, distributing water and otherwise tackling high temperatures.

“We would love it if Congress would give you the ability to declare heat a disaster,” she said on Thursday.

San Antonio’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, touted the steps his city is taking to promote climate action, including boosting public transit and solar energy production.

“Thankfully, sustainability and green energy are no longer four-letter words in the state of Texas,” he said.

The nation’s capital is experiencing its own heat crisis, with officials warning that temperatures this week could exceed 100F (37.8C) for the first time in seven years. Oppressive heat is expected to spread into the midwest and north-east in the coming days.

Heat is the “number one weather-related killer” in the US, Biden said.

“Six hundred people die annually from its effects – more than from floods, hurricanes and tornadoes in America combined,” he said.

Thursday’s announcement followed other heat-related measures from the White House. Last year, federal officials launched the interagency heat-focused website Heat.gov. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) also announced it was developing a heat standard for workers, but it could take years to finalize.

Juley Fulcher, a health and safety advocate at the non-profit Public Citizen, said that while Thursday’s heat hazard alert reaffirmed existing federal heat-related protections, the new rule is crucial to expanding those measures.

“Without a rule, Osha is in a very difficult position trying to hold employers accountable,” she said. “It must be a priority.”

Industry interests are attempting to stall the rule’s completion, she said. On Wednesday, legislators introduced a bill which would require Osha to issue an interim rule.

Climate activist Jamie Henn, who founded Fossil Free Media and previously co-founded 350.org, said Thursday’s announcements were insufficient. He noted that the president had failed to declare a federal climate emergency, which could allow him to speed the energy transition and block fossil fuel projects without congressional approval.

“Addressing extreme heat will require us to stop pouring fuel on the flames,” said Henn.

On Thursday, federal officials are expected to greenlight the expansion of a gas liquefaction and export terminal in Port Arthur, Texas, enabling the equivalent of 698bn cubic feet of the planet-heating fuel to be exported each year for three decades.

“Stop approving and subsidizing projects which will increase climate-changing carbon in our atmosphere that’s fueling this extreme weather,” said John Beard, the chief executive of Port Arthur Community Action Network.

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