US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to strengthen the protection of the country’s old-growth forests in a push to combat the climate crisis that has worsened wildfires and other environmental disasters.
The plan, announced on Earth Day on Friday, would create the first inventory of old-growth forests on federal lands. It also calls for expanding reforestation efforts and forging partnerships to grow forests outside of US government-owned lands.
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“Our forests are our planet’s lungs. They literally are recycling and cycling CO2 out of the atmosphere; that’s what they do,” Biden said during a speech in Seattle on the US west coast.
Biden also announced a plan to plant 1.2 billion trees across the country, a move he said would “begin the vital work of reforesting in America”.
“It makes sense, and it also makes a big difference, including in our cities, and on our city streets,” Biden said of the tree-planting scheme.
Experts have said climate change has caused the annual US wildfire season to begin earlier and burn hotter, especially in the west of the country. Last summer, blazes destroyed entire communities across California and killed thousands of giant Sequoia trees.
Despite Biden’s emphasis on the environment, climate activists have criticised the US president for not combatting the crisis more aggressively.
The White House’s now-stalled social spending agenda included measures – funded with billions of dollars – to cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, but due to a deadlock in Congress, it is now all but dead.
But Biden talked up his own environmental record on Friday, including the push for electric vehicles as well as provisions in a $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that he signed into law last year.
“The bipartisan infrastructure law … I signed provides billions of dollars for a nationwide network of 500,000 charging stations,” he said.
Still, Biden called on Congress to do more.
“Look around, cities and states are acting; businesses are acting; I’m acting. We need Congress to act as well,” he said.
Democrats have a slim majority in the House of Representatives and the thinnest of majorities in the Senate, where conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have regularly upset Biden’s plans.
On Friday, Biden hit out at Republicans for failing to work with him on major legislation. “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party … this is the MAGA party now,” he said referring to his predecessor Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again.
The US president also highlighted the racial justice aspect of the environmental crisis, as lower-income and more diverse communities are more likely to feel the brunt of environmental disasters.
“We put environmental justice at the centre of what we do, addressing the disproportionate health, environmental and economic impact that had been borne primarily by communities of colour, places too often left behind,” he said.
The White House had released a statement previewing the environmental executive order earlier in the day.
“Wildfires and extreme weather events are growing in frequency and ferocity, engulfing communities in the West and across the country and costing lives, homes, and money,” it said. “Because President Biden knows the cost of inaction is too great, he is taking bold executive action and reaffirming his calls on Congress to address the climate crisis.”