Climate change is a crisis. But should President Biden declare a national emergency?

By John Morales | February 3, 2021

bird in flight at dawn in marsh Landmark environmental legislation was severely weakened in the final two weeks of Trump’s presidency—including the seminal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Image courtesy of Dae Jeung Kim/Pixabay

I’ve been communicating about climate change and advocating for climate action for nearly a quarter century. So it should come as no surprise that I was largely—though not entirely—satisfied with what transpired in Washington on January 27th, the so-called “Climate Day” at the White House.

In the series of Executive Orders signed that day and the preceding seven, President Biden addressed much more than the climate crisis. The first orders, signed within hours of being sworn in, included a directive for the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, and a freezing (or reversal) of rules passed in the final days of the Trump presidency. The latter is an important step to reverse the weakening of decades-long regulations that had boosted conservation and protected the environment, such as the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Federal agencies were also instructed to review and potentially overturn more than 100 regulatory rollbacks, including the blunting of the Magna Carta of US environmental laws, the National Environmental Protection Act—which created today’s EPA.

Biden’s Executive Orders are all well and good, and a strong start to any attempt to deal rationally but urgently with the crisis that is upon us. But if climate change is indeed a crisis, then should President Biden invoke the federal National Emergencies Act, as some have called for? This would give him sweeping powers to do things such as, say, redirect funds from the border wall to fund green energy construction projects. But such emergency powers compromise the health of our democracy, and in effect act as an attempted end-run around Congress. And they are not a real, long-term solution; instead, the answer(s) lie in a multi-pronged approach that use the legislative system and the federal government’s powers to permanently embed climate goals across all aspects of policy, in tandem with other goals such as conserving the environment, defending our nation’s security, and striving for environmental justice.

Let us look at each of these related goals in turn.

Conservation contributes to the mitigation of global warming. That’s why these and other executive orders signed by President Biden are well-aligned with climate goals. Following a global push to conserve 30 percent of lands and oceans by 2030, the President signed off on our own 30×30 conservation target to protect American land and water for future generations. He directed agencies to create a Civilian Climate Corps that would “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters.” Biden also revoked the permit for the yet-to-be-completed portion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to Oklahoma, issued a moratorium on new oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and asked the Interior Department to review the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, which Trump had shrunk so as to allow for industrial development.

Defending our nation’s security. The directives signed on Climate Day are overarching. First, President Biden restored climate change as a matter of national security. The Trump administration had removed climate change from the list of national security threats in 2017. Trump had also downsized the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy by two-thirds. By signing the Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, Biden elevated the new directorship of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level position and charged this new science advisor with ensuring “scientific integrity across federal agencies.” The President also reestablished the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which will advise “on policy that affects science, technology and innovation.”

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It’s a whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis like there’s never been before, with the creation of the White House Office on Domestic Climate Policy to be led by former EPA director Gina McCarthy, and an instruction for federal agencies to decarbonize by—among other things—procuring pollution-free electricity and shifting to a zero-emission fleet of vehicles.

Striving for environmental justice. The most groundbreaking of these overarching domestic initiatives are the ones prioritizing environmental justice. Communities of color have long suffered the ravages of environmental racism right in their backyards—with horrific and long-lasting consequences. The Executive Orders direct federal agencies to “address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.” And the new Justice40 Initiative seeks to deliver 40 percent of “relevant federal investments” to disadvantaged communities. These actions are many decades overdue.

In the days leading up to Climate Day, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the President should consider declaring a climate emergency. During a press conference preceding the Executive Orders’ signing ceremony, John Kerry, Biden’s new international climate envoy, did describe global warming as an “existential” threat. Yet no one that day, from the President on down, uttered the word “emergency.”

So, where does the rationale for declaring a climate emergency come in? There are two definitions for emergency in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action” and “an urgent need for assistance or relief.” The climate crisis is most definitely not unforeseen.

Scientists theorized about an enhanced greenhouse effect leading to global warming as far back as the 19th century, and the subject of climate change first appeared on the cover of the Bulletin in February 1978. (And there are even earlier references to anthropogenic climate change in the  magazine, going back to 1961.) In 1988, NASA’s James Hansen put the issue on America’s radar when he testified before the US Senate that global warming was already underway. Stupefyingly, Big Oil giants—most notably Exxon—had been well aware for at least ten years prior to Hansen’s seminal testimony on Capitol Hill of the warming that was being produced by carbon dioxide emissions. Exxon kept that knowledge hidden and, along with other special interests, embarked on a decades-long disinformation campaign that greatly contributed to keeping the American public confused about the true state of the science of climate change.

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If human activities cause us to continue to spew carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases at our business-as-usual rate, our chance to keep global warming to somewhat manageable levels will quickly slip away. There is undoubtedly an urgent need for mitigation. The climate crisis, like an emergency, calls for immediate action. Our actions on climate, domestically and globally, must take on the urgency of an emergency.

Does this mean that I am advocating for President Biden to elevate the climate crisis to an emergency at the federal level? Aside from Senator Schumer, there are other entities calling for the President to do this, including the CLEO Institute (where I serve on the board of directors).

I am not.

Just because former president Trump made border wall-building a spurious national emergency does not mean other presidents should follow suit. The climate crisis is most definitely not spurious—it is an issue that is orders of magnitude bigger than sealing off the Mexican border. But invoking the National Emergencies Act for the purpose of climate action could cause more trouble than good, setting a terrible example for the future, and constitute a misuse of the intentions of the Act, as pointed out by New York University Law School professor Elizabeth Goitein in a recent OpEd in the Washington Post:

Emergency powers are designed for events such as terrorist attacks, epidemics and natural disasters—earthquakes, tornados and the like. They aren’t intended to address persistent problems, no matter how dire. And they aren’t meant to be an end-run around Congress. If lawmakers have had ample time to consider a problem and have chosen not to authorize certain solutions, declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress is a misuse of power. This principle applies whether the issue is unlawful border crossings or the warming of the planet.”

If President Biden used the National Emergencies Act to take on climate, I fear that any chances for the US Congress to enshrine into law significant climate and environmental actions would be lost in the acrimonious rhetoric that will follow.

What I do see is the need for even more urgent but effective measures, backed up by science, that will drive us towards a Net Zero economy sooner. This needs to go beyond potentially ephemeral Executive Orders. We need legislation—including a carbon fee, and every other tool in the shed. Political capital must be wisely spent. A lot of that capital will be expended on a new COVID relief package as well as an attempt to launch immigration reform, among other priorities. (Which raises the question of “How much will be left for an energy and climate policy that can get us to Net Zero?”)

I applaud the Biden administration for giving climate a high priority. Now I look for the President to leverage his political savvy to follow through and get Congress to agree to larger actions that will place climate at the top of the pedestal, where it belongs.

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Dik Coates
3 years ago

It’s beyond a national emergency… other than a handful of smaller countries, on a per capita basis, the US is the #1 contributer to carbon… they are putting the world at risk… China’s output is lots, but they have a much larger population… on a per capita basis the US has nearly 3x as much.


John Christopher
3 years ago

Yep and don’t forget the often-overlooked climate change effects of animal agriculture and its environmental impact. Animal agriculture is a huge contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions and is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss.

Animal agriculture puts a heavy strain on many of the Earth’s finite land, water and energy resources. In order to accommodate the 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, a third of the planet’s ice-free land surface, as well as nearly sixteen percent of global freshwater, is devoted to growing livestock.