At Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta, billionaire activist Tom Steyer declared himself “the only person on this stage that will say climate is the number one priority.”
Central to his pitch is a pledge to deploy the same sweeping White House authority President Donald Trump used, quite controversially, in February to divert resources to the border.
“I would declare a state of emergency on day one,” said Steyer. “I would use the emergency powers of the presidency.”
Steyer didn’t elaborate on how he would use presidential power to fight climate change, an idea he first floated in July in his proposal to curb emissions. It’s unclear whether this would mean invoking the rarely used 1976 National Emergencies Act, which grants the White House broad authorities, or using the sweeping powers the presidency has acquired since Sept. 11 to intervene on emissions.
Even in his proposal’s vagueness, declaring such an emergency would be a bold act ― one that climate, legal and political experts say could open dangerous doors and ultimately hinder long-term action to combat climate change.
“Simply put, too much executive power + too much polarization = schizophrenic policies,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told HuffPost via email. “You need Congressional buy-in for any policy to endure, and almost by definition climate change policies require sustainability.”
If a future president opts for declaring a national emergency on climate, it will ironically be in part because Trump, a vocal denier of established climate science, empowered them to do so.
Trump opened the door to a broader use of such powers with his decision to declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration plans to divert $3.6 billion in congressionally appropriated funds for military projects to fund construction of Trump’s border wall, and the president has twice vetoed congressional resolutions to terminate the emergency declaration. Eleven Senate Republicans joined Democrats to vote in favor of the most recent measure.
Richard Pierce, a law professor at George Washington University, expects there are few experts on presidential emergency powers who aren’t troubled by the precedent set by Trump and Steyer’s comment at the debate.
“Scholars all over the country are scrambling to find some way of limiting the scope of those powers now that everybody realizes that they can be used to potentially do any damn thing the president wants,” he told HuffPost in an interview.
“The whole idea that the president could basically de facto take away all the power of Congress just by doing everything on an emergency basis, well that scares everyone.”
That’s not to say there’s no emergency on climate change; each major new study adds to an already bleak picture as scientists warn that governments are quickly running out of time to make the transition away from fossil fuels necessary to stave off potentially catastrophic impacts like surging sea levels, extreme weather and drought. In a report this month, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries declared that global warming has reached an “emergency” level and warned that failing to take action would lead to “untold human suffering.”
Ted Parson, an environmental law professor at UCLA, said he understands framing climate change as a crisis, but warns that continued messaging that the world is at the point of no return has the potential to backfire.
“One is that you mislead your supporters into thinking that the initial actions are all it takes,” he said. “And the other is you set yourself up for a backlash from your opponents as it becomes clear that the initial actions are not sufficient.”
No single declaration, regulation or technology can solve this massive problem. Rather, reversing course will require a sweeping, decadeslong transformation of the world energy sector to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. While a national emergency on climate might initially help move the needle in the right direction, it suggests a sort of “one and done” solution, Parsons said. As he sees it, the worst outcome would be for regulations imposed as part of a national emergency begin to work, only to have the political pendulum swing the other direction a few years later when people declare the effort ineffective because they can’t see and feel immediate results. Humans have already locked the planet into a certain amount of warming, meaning temperatures will continue to rise even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop today.
“We have an understanding of how [climate change] works,” Parson said. “But we don’t have an understanding of how to manage coherent action over 100 years.”
Declaring a presidential emergency on the climate crisis also raises the risk that a future government could use the legal precedent to enforce authoritarian policies, writer Casey Williams argued in March in The Outline.
Even as some far-right parties in Europe warm to Trumpian skepticism on climate science, an influential subset is abandoning climate denialism and embracing rhetoric that cites the emissions crisis as justification for draconian immigration policies. France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, vowed in April to make a “Europe of nations” the “world’s first ecological civilization.” Harkening to Nazi-era blood-and-soil myths about ethnic ties to geography, she claimed those “rooted in their home” are “ecologist,” and suggested “nomadic” people “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland.”
Following Green parties’ surge in that month’s European parliamentary elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany’s youth wing in Berlin urged party leaders to shed the “difficult to understand statement that mankind does not influence the climate,” an issue that moves “more people than we thought.”
The vast majority of U.S. adults ― 67% ― recognize the climate is changing, and 53% understand humans are the primary cause, according to Yale Program on Climate Change Communication 2019 survey data. Republican lawmakers who once dismissed climate science as bunk are now starting to cite the crisis as driving their policies. The shift comes at just the same moment when racist violence inspired by the president is on the rise and the GOP is championing previously fringe positions on immigration.
Not all emergency declarations, however, carry that same risk.
In July, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution to declare the climate crisis an emergency in name only. The nine-page document specifically states that “nothing in this concurrent resolution constitutes a declaration of a national emergency” that would authorize “special or extraordinary power.” Rather, the proposal aims to codify recognition of the threat scientists say the nation faces without urgent action. It is co-sponsored by four other Democratic presidential candidates: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
There are 1,195 jurisdictions in 25 countries, including the national parliaments of the United Kingdom, Portugal and France that have passed resolutions declaring climate change an “emergency,” according to a tally on the aptly titled website ClimateEmergencyDeclaration.org. The declarations are meant to build public awareness and mobilize the resources necessary to tackle the threat.
The majority of Democrats vying for president in 2020, including front-runners Joe Biden, Sanders and Warren, support implementing a Green New Deal, a sweeping federal policy framework to take on climate change and transition the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels.
This story has been updated to note that Blumenauer is also an original sponsor of the climate emergency resolution.