President Biden is reportedly weighing declaring a climate emergency, The Washington Post first reported late Monday night. The news came days after Senator Joe Manchin said he doesn’t back Democrats’ efforts to pass an economic package this month that would include billions for climate action. Last week, the Globe reported on what powers Biden could unlock by declaring a federal climate emergency:
Manchin reportedly told Democratic leaders Thursday evening that he won’t support an economic package that contains new spending on climate change. It’s a major blow to the climate — and to the Biden administration’s campaign promises.
But advocates say there are still steps the White House can take to help secure a livable future. A major one: declaring a national climate emergency.
Biden has called climate change an “emergency” before, but has stopped short of making an official declaration under the National Emergencies Act. According to one estimate, U.S. presidents have declared 60 national emergencies since 1976, but never for this purpose.
Such a step wouldn’t just be symbolic, advocates say. It would unlock the power to invoke over 120 statutory powers, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, making new executive authorities and resources available to take on the crisis.
“It gives him additional tools,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “And you need every tool in the toolbox if you’re really going to solve this problem.”
Actions that currently require congressional approval would become immediately possible, Hartl said. The administration could, for instance, reinstate a national ban on crude oil exports, which the Obama administration quietly repealed in 2015.
According to one 2020 analysis, reinstating the ban would reduce domestic fossil fuel production, cutting global carbon emissions by as much as 165 million metric tons each year – the equivalent of closing 42 coal plants. On the campaign trail, President Biden said he was ready to ban fossil fuel exports.
Declaring a climate emergency would also allow the administration to reallocate funds from the existing budget, said Mitch Jones, managing director of policy at Food and Water Watch.
Former President Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act to reallocate billions of dollars to build a wall along the nation’s southern border after Congress refused to appropriate the funds. But Biden could use the authority to fund clean energy production, for instance by reallocating fossil fuel subsidies, said Jones.
Jones said that could help Biden bring existing policies to life. In June, for instance, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to manufacture solar panels, insulation and heat pumps. It made hundreds of millions of dollars available to do so, but Jones said that’s not enough.
“A further climate emergency declaration would free him up to move additional funding into the domestic supply chain for producing clean power,” he said.
By invoking the National Emergencies Act, Biden could also use the Stafford Act to send emergency aid packages to states, tribes, and cities hit by climate change-fueled extreme weather. And he could also impose trade penalties on countries that are expanding fossil fuel production or destroying ecosystems, advocates say.
“It would also make very clear to the entirety of the federal government that this is a national emergency of the highest order, which you would hope would then translate to much more aggressive, faster action from the agencies,” said Hartl.
Ashley Thomson, a campaigner at Greenpeace USA, said declaring a climate emergency would also send a crucial political message.
“Communities across the globe, including here in the U.S., are already feeling the consequences of climate change including drought, stronger storms, and heat waves,” she said. “We need confirmation that he understands the scope and the danger ahead if his administration fails to act.”
At least three dozen countries — including Canada, the entire European Union, and New Zealand — have declared climate change as an official emergency, as have thousands of counties, cities, and towns. On Friday, Pacific island leaders made such a declaration.
Some critics note that these declarations haven’t always translated into policy. The day after Canada’s parliament declared a national climate emergency, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the expansion of a major crude oil pipeline — a move climate activists condemned.
Though it wouldn’t necessitate urgent action, Hartl says, such a declaration would be an important move.
“We are not arguing that the national emergency is a panacea,” he said. “But it is an incredibly important step, one of many, that must be deployed.”
Last February, Senators Bernie Sanders, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer put forth a bill that would have required Biden to take the leap, winning 53 cosponsors. In an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also voiced support for the move.
Not everyone is convinced a national climate emergency declaration is a good idea. In a January 2021 piece for the Washington Post, Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, argued that such an invocation would be an overreach.
“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,” she wrote. “And they aren’t meant to be an end-run around Congress.”
But Hartl argued that this reading of the law is too narrow.
“Climate change is a national emergency,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we treat it as such?”
On Friday, Manchin spoke on a West Virginia radio program, pushing back on journalists’ reports that he attacked the climate portions of the Democrats’ reconciliation package.
“As far as I’m concerned, I want climate, I want an energy policy,” he said.
But even if Congress ends up passing such a package, said Hartl, declaring a climate emergency would still be a good idea, especially because he expects Manchin will attempt to water the bill down.
“If you use every tool at your disposal,” he said, “you have a better chance of success.”