Okay, so Biden declares a climate emergency — then what?

Brandon Pytel
Feb 13 · 3 min read

Calls for United States President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency are heating up.

In late-January, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made news by floating the idea. And last week, a trio of politicians put forward a bill that requires the president to declare a climate emergency.

Okay, so, what does declaring a climate emergency even look like? One imagines The Office’s Michael Scott yelling “I declare bankruptcy!” and calling it a day. Declaring a climate emergency, however, is much more than just putting something in writing (or shouting it in your office).

Joe Biden at a campaign rally in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

Should Joe Biden heed these calls to action, he’d unlock an additional 100 presidential powers, advance much of his $2 trillion climate plan, and even inject new life into the Green New Deal.

The recent bill, pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), outlines in detail what such a declaration would look like. Biden could start investing in large-scale mitigation and resiliency projects, modernizing millions of buildings, protecting and restoring public lands, and transforming the industrial and transportation sector.

And he could do it all without Congress — a necessary shortcut given a narrowly split Senate and the Republican party’s general disinterest in climate action.

“President Biden has done an outstanding job of prioritizing climate in the first days of his administration, but after years of practiced ignorance from Trump and Congressional republicans, an even larger mobilization is needed,” said Rep. Blumenauer in a statement.

That all sounds like a lot, but given the state of the climate crisis, we may not have another choice: We’re falling well short of the Paris Agreement targets, spewing emissions at record rates, seeing out-of-control hurricanes, temperatures, and wildfires, and, well, you get the picture.

Such a declaration isn’t completely unprecedented, either. Since 1978, emergency powers have been used by U.S. presidents 59 times (Trump used them for his border wall). And around the world, over 30 countries have already declared climate emergencies.

“Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?” said United Nations Secretary António Guterres at December’s Climate Ambition Summit. “I urge all others to follow.”

Now that we’ve established the declaration’s legitimacy, how do we expect Joe Biden to use it? Republicans worry that Biden has already bitten off more than he can chew, attacking the president for reentering the Paris Agreement and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline.

Biden does walk a fine line. If voters perceive he’s overstepping his powers, midterms in 2022 could prove fatal for Democrats, swinging control back to the Republican Party and ridding Biden of the political capital to do much else.

Biden, however, is hoping his approach will be successful and popular enough to both overcome the climate crisis and put Americans back to work. To pull this off, Biden is addressing the climate crisis much as Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with the Great Depression and World War II.

In his recent book Presidents of War, historian Michael Beschloss writes that part of FDR’s success was his public transparency in his fireside chats and his ability to lift his aims to a “higher moral plane.” Biden has held repeated press conferences, issued new Cabinet positions, and made clear that climate change is an intersectional crisis that deserves top priority.

The Founding Fathers envisioned leaders like FDR at the helm during national conflict, “people of sagacity, self-restraint, honesty, experience, character, and profound respect for democratic ideals,” writes Beschloss.

The previous president lacked much of these traits. If Biden can emulate this vision, though, he’ll not only shape his legacy — he’ll shape the future of the Planet.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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