Biden said to be pondering a climate emergency declaration soon, along with executive actionsJuly 19, 2022
Among the scores of organizations that have called on Biden to declare a climate emergency is Food & Water Watch. Executive Director Wenonah Hauter told Heather Richards at EnergyWire that “Biden must take matters into his own hands by declaring a climate emergency and immediately moving to halt new drilling and fracking on federal lands and waters and denying the approval of new fossil fuel pipelines and infrastructure projects.”
Said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University: “If we wake up in 5 to 10 years and say, ‘This is unbearable to our economy, to our communities, to a livable future; we must act,’ it will be too late to cut and stem the losses that will be going on. This is a challenge where the decisions we make this year, the next year and the next year will determine what type of climate we will have at least until mid century and most likely beyond.”
The U.N. Development Program surveyed more than 1.2 million residents of 50 countries with its People’s Climate Vote in 2020. It found 64% believe climate change is a global emergency. Starting in England in 2016, more than 2,000 local governments around the world have themselves declared a climate emergency.
However, declaring is the easy part. Words aren’t actions. Many of the dozens of nations or parts of nations that have declared climate emergencies are nowhere near a trajectory on emissions-reductions that would keep average global warming at or below 2 degrees Celsius since the industrial age began. Above that temperature rise is what climatologists call disastrous. Right now the world is closing in fast on the 1.5-degree rise that nations more vulnerable to climate change managed to get included as an aspirational goal at the Paris Agreement talks in 2016—aspirations that far exceed policies and pledges.
Our next door neighbor to the north, for example, declared a climate emergency three years ago, but continues in a highly destructive manner to extract the dirtiest petroleum on the planet from the Alberta tar sands. The day after parliament declared that emergency in June 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to carry gummy tar sands petroleum (bitumen) from Alberta to coastal British Columbia. Which is to reiterate that talk is not only cheap but often disingenuous.
So what is the advantage to a declaration?
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has put together a list of almost 136 statutes that authorize special powers to the president during emergencies. Dan Farber at The Revelator pointed out that there are additional laws that authorize presidents to take action on national security. From the Brennan Center, Farber spotlighted a few possibilities:
- Oil leases are required to have clauses allowing them to be suspended during national emergencies. (43 USC 1341) If climate change is a national emergency caused by fossil fuels, then suspension seems like a logical response.
- The president has emergency powers to respond to industrial shortfalls in national emergencies. (50 USC 4533). This could be used to support expansion of battery or electrical vehicle production. Another provision allows the president to extend loan guarantees to critical industries during national emergencies. (50 USC 4531). This could be used to support renewable energy more generally.
- The secretary of Transportation has broad power to “coordinate transportation” during national emergencies. (49 U.S.C 114). This might allow various restrictions on automobile and truck use to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases.
- The president may invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to deal with “any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States.” (50 USC 1701-1707). That description certainly applies to climate change. According to the Brennan Center, this Act “confers broad authority to regulate financial and other commercial transactions involving designated entities, including the power to impose sanctions on individuals and countries.” Conceivably, these powers could be deployed against companies or countries trafficking in fossil fuels.
It’s good to hear that the president appears to be seriously considering a climate emergency declaration. But declarations have proved to be hollow in several countries. The value of a U.S. declaration will be determined by how aggressive those executive actions Biden and his aides are said to be considering. That’s so even though it’s clear that many—perhaps all—executive actions taken on climate will wind up in the courts, especially given the Supreme Court’s current ideological makeup. If the emergency declaration is couched in national security language—as it certainly ought to be given the damage fueled or exacerbated by climate change that is already hitting us, with worse to come—perhaps the Supreme Six will splinter.
Whatever the case, even if litigation hangs up some, most, or all climate-related executive actions, Biden should take action anyway. Better to have fought and lost than surrendered without a fight. In the past 30 years, we’ve had enough of that when it comes to climate policy.