By Ari Natter
“The president’s powers to address climate change through an emergency are very, very large,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, which is lobbying Biden’s team to act. “This is No. 1 on the list of things the Biden administration should do.”
In a statement, Biden’s transition team didn’t explicitly address the question of a climate emergency, saying only that he plans to follow through on his policy platform to fight the climate crisis while creating millions of jobs. Biden’s climate platform includes no mention of declaring a climate emergency.
The national emergency question could be an early potential source of tension between climate groups and Biden. It signals the tough fights ahead for the new president, as he walks a line between satisfying activists who backed his campaign and not promoting measures that would draw opposition from more moderate Democrats.
Many environmentalists were pleased to see Biden this week name former Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, fulfilling the campaign promise to elevate the issue of global warming to the highest levels of the White House.
“In addressing the climate crisis, President-elect Joe Biden is determined to seize the future now and leave a healing planet to future generations,” Kerry said Tuesday after being introduced as part of Biden’s national security team.
Yet progressives want his administration to go further. They see the emergency declaration as a way to achieve his ambitious climate agenda, even if legislation is blocked by a Senate potentially controlled by Republicans. But such a move may fall victim to the political realities left by the election.
“Declaring a climate emergency will radicalize climate protection, alienating the very moderate Senators needed to pass infrastructure and other bills with carbon-reducing provisions,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate official in the Clinton White House, now with the Progressive Policy Institute. “Why would Biden borrow from Trump’s polarizing playbook, when Biden’s trying to actually unite the country to act on climate?”
While Biden has vowed to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035 as part of a goal to reach zero net emissions by 2050, many elements of his plan would require Congress to act. And other policy shifts he promised, such as halting fracking on federal land, would have to go through a cumbersome, slow-moving regulatory process that complicated some of Trump’s own ambitions.
That may not be good enough for progressive environmentalists who say they are counting on Biden to follow through on campaign rhetoric that appealed to climate-minded voters, such as calling global warming “an existential threat to humanity.”
Greenpeace, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and groups like Friends of the Earth, were among 500 organizations that called for the next president to declare a national climate emergency last December. Two candidates who sought the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer, vowed on the campaign trail to declare climate change a national emergency.
Some are skeptical that Biden will declare a climate emergency given the election results and deepening crises with coronavirus and the economy — at least not until the end of his presidency. Possible actions Biden could take under an emergency declaration — such as suspending offshore drilling or trying to shutdown pipelines — would almost certainly be held up in lengthy court battles brought by opponents. While the Trump administration was similarly challenged over its diversion of funds for the border wall, it ultimately prevailed at the Supreme Court.
“It would be a pretty egregious sign of weakness right out of the gate; an acknowledgment that legislative and regulatory regular order were destined to fail,” said Mike McKenna, who previously served in Trump’s White House as deputy assistant to the president. “That strikes me as something that might happen in year three or year four, as part of an effort to goose the re-elect, or the election, of whoever is running.”
Trump declared a national emergency in February 2019, a move that allowed him to divert some $3.5 billion to start construction on the wall along the southern border after Congress refused to appropriate the funding. The move drew criticism from members of his own party, such as Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who said he was “overstepping into the legislative prerogative.”
Supporters of the move note that presidents have used emergency declarations in the past, which are designed to give the executive branch special, temporary powers to deal with a crisis, and dozens of active national emergencies remain.
“The border wall declaration completely re-conceptualizes what constitutes an emergency — and that genie never goes back in the bottle,” said Benjamin Salisbury, a senior policy analyst at Height LLC.