Last summer, environmental advocates were despondent over the apparent death of a big climate law in the Senate, and White House officials considered a big gesture to show President Joe Biden’s dedication to curbing emissions: the declaration of a national climate emergency.
Biden traveled to Massachusetts last July, surrounded by climate hawks, to the site of a former coal-fired power plant turned into a manufacturing site for wind energy parts. He called climate change “an emergency” but stopped short of an official national emergency declaration, a move that advocates wanted him to make to unlock additional presidential powers.
The White House had backed off an emergency declaration, then-climate adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters at the time, because “it was just a decision that we need to be thoughtful about this and we want to outline actions, not just declare things.”
Then the climate law passed.
About a week after Biden’s big climate speech, the surprise revival of the behemoth climate bill in the Senate dramatically changed the landscape.
Biden’s signing last August of the law since dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — the biggest climate law in history that funnels an estimated $370 billion into climate and renewable energy — largely put talks of an emergency declaration on the backburner.
But now it’s back.
The president is making a big public push for his climate agenda during a tour of Southwestern states as he attempts to rally public support for the 1-year-old climate law. During an interview Tuesday with the Weather Channel, Biden garnered headlines when he said he has “practically” declared a climate emergency.
He pointed to the climate policies he has pursued — including the Inflation Reduction Act, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and his land conservation efforts. Advocates of a climate emergency declaration were quick to note that, in fact, he has not yet declared an emergency under the National Emergencies Act, and they renewed pressure for him to do so.
But Biden’s comments appear to signal that — at least for now — the administration is focusing on other avenues to tackle climate change.
That’s a better use of the administration’s time and effort, according to some government insiders and legal experts. While an emergency declaration would be symbolic and could score Biden some political points on his left, they argue, it would face legal risks and isn’t the right tool to slash emissions.
“There was serious consideration in the White House for a climate emergency when it looked like we might not get those tools, in particular the Inflation Reduction Act,” said David Hayes, who served as a senior White House climate official last summer when talks of an emergency declaration took place.
“But we’ve got it [the IRA] now,” Hayes added. “And it’s head down and let’s make it happen.”
The case for an emergency
Advocates of an emergency declaration argue that the climate law — which incentivizes industries to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy — doesn’t do enough to halt fossil fuel production.
“The executive actions that we’re asking for from President Biden is really the straightforward answer to these record heat waves and climate disasters,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Su is a lead author of a report released last year detailing the actions Biden could take under a climate emergency declaration.
Among other things, the president could use the National Emergencies Act to halt crude oil exports and stop U.S. investment in fossil fuel projects abroad, the report says.
Democrats in Congress are also pushing Biden to declare a climate emergency. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are among those advocating for a climate emergency declaration.
“While the Inflation Reduction Act made record-breaking climate investments, there is still much more to do to reverse the devastating effects of climate change,” Ocasio-Cortez said in May.
“A climate emergency declaration will allow the federal government to take action to prevent future initiatives detrimental to our climate, such as the Willow project,” she added, referring to the Alaska drilling project the Biden administration approved earlier this year.
In the Senate, Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia has introduced legislation that would bar the president from using emergency authorities on climate change.
“The Biden administration has repeatedly governed by executive overreach when it comes to energy and environmental regulations, ignoring the law and doing so without congressional approval,” Capito said in a statement. Her effort, she said, would “ensure the president cannot go further by declaring a national emergency, which would grant him more executive authority and grow the size of government all in the name of climate change.”
A bad fit?
Opponents of an emergency declaration for climate argue that it’s not the right way to tackle emissions and could face legal hurdles.
“What people are ignoring here and why I think that the response to [Biden’s] comments have been a little unfair is that a national emergency declaration would not open huge reserves of authorities or money to deal with climate change,” said Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
“A declaration of national emergency gives the president access to very specific authorities. None of those authorities were written with climate change in mind,” she said. “The ones that you could sort of press into service here are ill-fitting — most of them would not survive a court challenge.”
Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said an emergency declaration “would be less of a magic wand” and more of a “combination megaphone and crowbar.”
“As a legal matter, it would unlock a few tools, but it’s not sure if those tools would really work,” Gerrard said. “It’s not clear to me that it would unblock any of the things that are standing in the way of that really rapid transition we need.”
But could a declaration — which doesn’t automatically trigger any actions by the administration — be a useful messaging tool, particularly with the 2024 election looming?
“Young people across the country know that ‘practically speaking’ President Biden has not declared a climate emergency,” Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash said Wednesday in a statement, pointing to recent fossil fuel project approvals that have riled environmental advocates.
“Approving new fossil fuel projects like the Willow Project is not ‘practically’ declaring a climate emergency. Expediting the Mountain Valley Pipeline is not ‘practically’ declaring a climate emergency,” Prakash said.
Hayes backed Biden’s assertion that — “practically speaking,” as he said — the president is “treating climate as an emergency, and he really has from day one.”
It’s important to “get beyond symbolism here. What matters is what’s happening on the ground,” Hayes said. “To me, it’s a distraction. The president is using the laws and the tools that he has, and they are now robust.”