Los Angeles, California – US President Joe Biden is considering declaring a national climate emergency, which would allow him to unlock new executive powers to kick-start climate action.
John Kerry, the special presidential climate envoy, told the New York Times last week that the debate within the United States administration was over when the declaration should come and how it should be rolled out, rather than whether Biden should declare an emergency.
“As president, I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger,” Biden told reporters on July 20. “And that’s what climate change is about. It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger.”
While Biden labelled climate change an “emergency” and vowed to use executive powers to combat the crisis, he stopped short of declaring a national emergency. He announced $2.3bn in federal funds for infrastructure that can withstand heatwaves, floods and storms, along with $385m to states for home air conditioning and community cooling centres.
His speech followed news that Senator Joe Manchin – a Democrat who holds the power in the Senate to sink or float legislation, and who has received more campaign donations from the oil, gas and coal sectors than any other senator – would not support the Build Back Better Act, a major piece of legislation that would have made historic investments in renewable energy.
As the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, the US bears the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis. Without support for legislative climate action, Biden’s options are severely limited – but an emergency declaration is one way he could make significant progress.
‘Depths of fragility’
Jean Su, energy justice programme director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, first experienced the dramatic effects of climate change while working in Madagascar in 2007. “We were hit by this relentless and freak set of six cyclones within six months,” she told Al Jazeera.
The storms flooded the region, wiping out rice crops and prompting a malaria outbreak. People had no choice but to drink and bathe in water that contained human waste, Su recalled. “For communities living on the edge of subsistence,” she said, “climate change plummets them into the depths of fragility, where one cyclone can set you back so far.”
Su is one of the lead authors of a recent report (PDF) that spells out how Biden can use emergency powers to mitigate the climate crisis. Declaring a climate emergency not only signals to international leaders that the US is serious about meeting the moment, but also unlocks legal presidential powers that aren’t otherwise available, she said.
By declaring a climate emergency, Biden can take five key executive actions: halting crude oil exports, suspending offshore oil and gas drilling, restricting international trade in fossil fuels, ordering the construction of renewable energy systems in climate-vulnerable communities, and leveraging Defence Production Act (DPA) funds to manufacture clean energy tech.
A US ban on crude oil exports that was overturned in 2015 led to an “explosion of fracking” that polluted drinking water and caused earthquakes in communities in Texas and New Mexico – and reinstating it could reduce emissions equivalent to the output of up to 42 coal plants, Su said. Biden could also halt hundreds of billions of dollars in international fossil-fuel financing: US financial institutions in 2020 invested more than $470bn in a dozen fossil-fuel expansion projects abroad, which together are expected to emit 175 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases, the report found.
But the most exciting prospect, Su said, would be Biden’s ability to leverage DPA funds to manufacture products such as electric vehicles. He used the DPA last year to manufacture vaccines to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and this past June, he invoked the act to boost production of solar panels. An emergency declaration would go even further by waiving funding restrictions on individual projects and “[lighting] a fire under all the agencies to get this done at the urgency and scale needed”, Su said.
Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for the Energy Innovation think-tank, realised in late 2020 that the world had changed forever. Record-breaking and deadly California wildfires cloaked the Bay Area in smoke that blocked out the sun and turned the sky an apocalyptic orange. He called the failure of the Build Back Better Act “a huge missed opportunity”, particularly after he and other climate analysts worked long hours to make the case that the spending package could meet Biden’s goal of a 50 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.
“Seeing the world that my kids are going to inherit, it has been tough to process,” O’Boyle, a father of three, told Al Jazeera.
The act contained three major opportunities for emissions reductions, he said: a clean energy tax credit to reduce the cost of wind, solar and battery investments; a fee to reduce methane emissions and leaks; and tax credits for electric vehicles to help reduce the upfront costs.
“Without the legislative measures, declaring a climate emergency doesn’t unlock the scale of investment in clean energy resources that is needed to meet these very ambitious emissions reduction goals,” he said.
John Paul Mejia, national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement political action group, first experienced the climate crisis at age 16. In 2017, Hurricane Irma forced him and his mom to evacuate their Miami home, along with a record-breaking 6.5 million other Florida residents who jammed the highways as they fled. Mejia’s home was spared, but he noticed that people faced disproportionate harms from the storm depending on their race and class.
The Sunrise Movement has previously urged Biden to treat climate change as an emergency. Asked whether the president was doing enough to address the climate crisis, Mejia was unequivocal: “No.”
Biden started strong with executive orders halting oil leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, and committing $10bn to a Civilian Climate Corps to employ people to take care of their communities – but since then, progress has stalled, Mejia said.
While Biden has supported offshore wind energy projects, he has also announced new oil and gas leases, breaking a campaign promise, and backed the construction of pipelines opposed by environmental groups and Indigenous communities. The recent Center for Biological Diversity report asserts that Biden’s record on climate action is “confused, breaks key campaign promises, and warrants clearer and more progressive leadership”.
“He has every opportunity to recommit to his climate mandate that young people and the vast majority of people across this country elected him on,” Mejia told Al Jazeera. “He can do that by activating emergency powers and delivering executive action to tackle the climate crisis.”