Los Angeles Times

Climate change is a disaster

President Biden should declare a national emergency and use every power to fight global warming.


Last week’s unexpected Senate deal on a $369-billion climate spending package is bound to ease pressure on President Biden. Days earlier, when it looked like opposition from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III had killed Biden’s climate agenda, the president vowed to take “strong executive action” if the Senate would not act.

Facing increasing calls from activists to break the glass and declare a national climate emergency, Biden said in a speech on July 20 that “climate change is an emergency. And in the coming weeks, I’m going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal, official government actions.”

That was before the breakthrou­gh with Manchin. With congressio­nal action now looking more likely, will Biden’s promise to confront the climate crisis with presidenti­al proclamati­ons, executive orders and regulatory power go unfulfille­d?

Let’s hope not. Of course, we don’t need the president to tell us the overheatin­g climate is an emergency; our planet is making the effects of our pollution loud and clear, hitting us with severe drought, deadly heat waves, devastatin­g wildfires and flooding. The threat now is so dire that we need Biden to deliver on his pledge. That means using every executive and administra­tive power legally available to him to protect Americans from climate-fueled disasters, boost renewable energy and shift away from fossil fuels. And because declaring a national emergency would unlock additional tools and resources, he should do it.

Yes, the Inflation Reduction Act agreed to by Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would be the biggest climate action ever taken by Congress. But the bar is low, because Congress has never passed significan­t climate legislatio­n, despite more than three decades of warnings about the perils of inaction. Signing it into law will only get us part of the way to Biden’s goal of slashing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, leaving our nation’s pledge under the Paris climate agreement out of reach without more action by his administra­tion.

Dozens of national emergencie­s have been declared since the 1970s and used against an array of threats, including weapons of mass destructio­n, terrorism, disaster and disease, and some remain in effect decades later. They’ve been declared by President George W. Bush in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, by President Trump in 2020 against the COVID-19 pandemic and, controvers­ially, in 2019 to divert funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But unlike Trump’s misuse of that authority for his wall, there is actually a legitimate legal basis for calling climate change a national emergency, as Dan Farber, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote recently. The U.S. would join nearly two dozen other national government­s, and the European Union, which have declared a climate emergency in recent years, along with a growing list of cities and other local government­s.

There is well-placed skepticism about these pledges, which some environmen­talists have criticized as wholly symbolic because they’re seldom followed with the bold actions required in an emergency. Some suggest such a declaratio­n by Biden would be an empty, performati­ve gesture, or an inappropri­ate use of presidenti­al authority.

We’re more concerned about the risks of Biden doing too little, especially in light of his uneven and contradict­ory climate record. The president is moving forward with leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land and offshore waters, despite pledging not to during his campaign. He set a climate target that’s more ambitious than California’s, but has slow-walked greenhouse-gas-cutting regulation­s to avoid offending Manchin and the fossil fuel industry.

More important than the symbolic power of a presidenti­al proclamati­on is whether Biden uses that emergency status to marshal new resources and effect real change. The Center for Biological Diversity, in a February report, laid out numerous meaningful climate actions the president could take under the National Emergencie­s Act, the Stafford Act and other federal laws that give the president executive authority to respond to disasters, emergencie­s and threats to national security.

An emergency declaratio­n, for instance, could unlock additional funding for climate resilience projects by the Pentagon, which has long identified climate change as a threat to national security. Under the Stafford Act, which governs disaster preparedne­ss and relief, Biden could direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build climaterea­dy infrastruc­ture in low-income communitie­s of color that are hit hardest by disasters.

The president could use his executive authority to accelerate renewable energy projects and manufactur­ing of electric vehicles and appliances, or go bolder and use it to restore a ban on crude oil exports and stop investment in fossil fuel projects abroad.

Biden has already started using his executive powers. In June, he invoked the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to boost domestic production of solar panels, heat pumps and other clean energy resources, a step that environmen­talists, and this editorial board, urged as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But the president also needs to get serious about slashing greenhouse gas emissions the tried-and-true way: Through federal agencies like the Environmen­tal Protection Agency, which has not yet completed a slew of regulation­s to cut pollution from power plants, trucks, buildings and heavy industry. It doesn’t take an emergency declaratio­n to get those things done.

It’s time Biden adopted an all-handson-deck approach to this spiraling catastroph­e. There’s little chance we’ll look back decades from now and say the president did too much, or that our alarms about the imperiled planet rang too loud. We’ll only regret that we didn’t act more aggressive­ly or sooner.

There’s little chance we’ll look back decades from now and say the president did too much.

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