In the United States, climate advocacy groups are seizing on the moment after President Joe Biden stated on 9 August 2023 that he had ‘practically’ declared a climate emergency. Numerous activist groups as well as politicians have since then increased pressure on Biden to actually declare an emergency, or a climate emergency.
There is an important nuance in this call, and something to be aware of in the use of specific words. This has not been explained or touched on in any of the numerous articles that have been published on the topic since 9 August.
When the Americans call on their president to ‘declare a national emergency’, this differs significantly from the broadly used concept of ‘declaring a climate emergency’ – something which has happened during the last seven years in more than 2,300 jurisdictions around the world.
In most cases, the content of these Climate Emergency Declarations have been democratically discussed and debated, amended and eventually voted on among the members of a Parliament or a Council. None of these declarations have given the decisionmakers special executive powers or authority to cancel the democratic decisionmaking process. However, when an American president declares ‘a national emergency’, this activates provisions in existing American laws to take drastic measures without taking it through Congress.
So if Biden wanted to seriously address the climate emergency, he could declare a national emergency using the National Emergencies Act and instantly halt crude oil exports by reinstating a ban that Congress lifted in 2015. He also could suspend offshore oil and gas drilling in over 11 million acres of federal waters, owing to a clause in those leases that allows the president to suspend operation during a national emergency. He could divert billions of dollars from the military toward constructing renewable energy projects. And so on. All of it without even discussing it with the parliamentarians in Congress.
In summary, ‘a national emergency’ which has morphed into ‘a national climate emergency’ – because it addresses the climate emergency – is not what is generally, and globally, is understood as a ‘climate emergency declaration’. ‘Declaring a climate emergency’ is not the same as when an American president ‘declares a national emergency’.
It is not unusual for an American president to declare a national emergency and use the executive powers this declaration activates. Climate acticists have called on Biden to declare a national emergency on climate-grounds since the earliest days of his presidency, and even more so after Biden on 20 July 2022 hinted in a speech in Massachusetts that he considered declaring an emergency.
The calls for a climate emergency declaration have intensified in the wake of recent extreme weather events, such as the deadly wildfire in Maui, the unprecedented tropical storm in California, and the severe flooding in Europe and China. These events have highlighted the urgency and magnitude of the climate challenge.
Biden is visiting Maui on 23 August 2023 to survey the damage and offer federal assistance to the victims of the wildfire. He is also expected to deliver remarks about tackling the climate crisis and boosting clean energy jobs. However, he is not expected to issue an emergency declaration at that time.
Supporters of a climate emergency declaration still hope that Biden will change his mind and use his trip to Maui as an opportunity to officially declare the United States in a climate emergency, or a national emergency. They argue that declaring a climate emergency would send a strong signal to the world that the United States is serious about leading the global fight against climate change, especially ahead of the global climate summit COP27 in November.
Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has long called on Biden to take this step. He was quoted by Politico as saying that “if the devastation in Hawaii isn’t a national emergency, what is?”
“I refuse to accept that people choosing between burning alive or jumping into the ocean for hours on end is our new normal. This is a crisis and we need to treat it that way. That starts with President Biden declaring a national climate emergency to unlock vast federal resources and emergency powers to help our communities prepare for and recover from these deadly climate disasters,” Mr Blumenauer said.
Having pointed these nuances and differences in wording out, let’s have a look at what is going on beneath the surface in the American climate activist community as far as climate emergency declaration calls are concerned.
→ Politico – 20 August 2023:
Biden faces calls to declare climate emergency as he heads to Maui
“Climate groups and many of the president’s allies in Congress urge him to invoke emergency powers to mitigate environmental threats.”
My heart breaks for the lives lost and communities devastated in Maui.
We must declare a climate emergency and advance the urgent policies necessary to confront the climate crisis and save lives. https://t.co/stFIMiimkl
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) August 11, 2023
→ NECN – 23 September 2023:
Should President Biden declare climate change a national emergency?
“A majority of Americans support the president declaring a national emergency to more effectively address the climate crisis. So why hasn’t President Biden used those executive powers? National Climate Reporter Chase Cain explores the debate around declaring a climate emergency.”
People vs. Fossil Fuels: Marching on the call on 17 September 2023
People vs. Fossil Fuels is an American group, which represents over 1,200 groups pressuring President Biden to declare a climate emergency and stop the federal approval of all new fossil fuel projects.
They call on President Biden to:
• Declare a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act, unlocking special powers to reinstate the crude oil export ban, redirect disaster relief funds toward distributed renewable energy construction in frontline communities and marshal companies to fast-track renewable transportation and clean power generation, creating millions of high-quality union jobs,
• Follow through on your promise to ban all new oil and gas leasing, drilling, and fracking on federal lands and waters,
• Stop federal agencies from approving fossil fuel projects, including pipelines, import and export terminals, storage facilities, refineries, and petrochemical plants. Direct the Department of Energy to halt gas exports to the full extent authorized by law.
According to their website, the group released a statement saying the American President Joe Biden should “follow through on his rhetoric” by declaring a national emergency.
The group’s Steering Committee members include Friends of the Earth U.S., GreenFaith, Greenpeace USA and Sierra Club.
→ American organisations and groups can join the coalition here
“But the president’s actions still fall seriously short, particularly when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels that are overheating the climate.” https://t.co/BDEVFJVSIG@POTUS: Declare a #ClimateEmergency and #EndFossilFuels.
All: Join us in September: https://t.co/RIjKD7OyrV
— People vs. Fossil Fuels (@FightFossils) August 21, 2023
Declare Emergency: non-violent civil resistance
In Washington D.C. on 21 August 2023 at 8:15 am, six Declare Emergency supporters went into the road and sat down to demand that Joe Biden declare a climate emergency. They blocked traffic during the early morning commute time for about an hour, and three of the activists were arrested.
Before being arrested, activist Anastasia Rogers said: “It’s kind of ridiculous that a climate emergency hasn’t been declared and there isn’t really much being done about it. Future generations are going to be suffering much more than we already are.”
Declare Emergency is a campaign using non-violent civil resistance techniques to disrupt the status quo and demand that the American government takes meaningful action to address the climate emergency. They demand that President Biden holds a press conference where he “declares a formal state of climate emergency and begins to make full use of his executive authority to save the United States from collapse.”
The campaign has seven demands, which are “to be taken in order, one at a time – and they are all enabled by our first demand that the president declare a climate emergency:”
1. Declare a climate emergency
2. Reduce the military’s carbon footprint
3. Stop fossil fuel extraction on Federal and Indigenous Lands
4. Remove the US from the International Oil Economy
5. Stop fossil fuel subsidies
6. Establish a National Citizens Assembly
7. Pardon those fighting for our future
→ On their website, they explain “Why Biden must Declare Emergency, and what he can do immediately after”
Sunrise Movement: petition
Sunrise Movement has launced a petition calling on President Biden to declare a climate emergency. It has quickly gathered close to 30,000 signatures.
The group’s demands for Biden is that his climate emergency declaration:
• Responds with the full force of the federal government to climate disasters as they occur,
• Redirects funding to building cleaner energy systems, resilient infrastructure, affordable housing, and good and efficient transit,
• Halts crude oil exports, stops oil and gas drilling, ends the practice of leasing public lands and waters for fossil fuel production, and transitions our economy off of fossil fuels, and
• Uses over 100 other statutory powers to stop the climate crisis.
“It’s a no-brainer to declare a climate emergency – and if President Biden said we already have, then why not do it now?,” Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash said in a statement after Biden incorrectly had claimed that he already had declared a national emergency on climate.
→ CNN – 9 August 2023:
Biden incorrectly claims he has declared a national emergency on climate
“President Joe Biden incorrectly claimed in an interview with The Weather Channel that he has already declared a national emergency on the climate crisis. When pressed on whether he had actually declared a national emergency, Biden said: ‘Practically speaking, yes’.”
→ PolitiFact – 9 August 2023:
Joe Biden: “I’ve already” declared a national climate emergency
“Joe Biden says he declared a national climate emergency, but he hasn’t.”
→ The Hill – 16 August 2023:
Progressive calls for climate emergency swell after Biden says he ‘practically’ declared one
“President Biden’s comment that he had “practically” declared a climate emergency is reigniting calls on the left for him to actually take such action. The White House has not announced any explicit climate emergency declarations. Biden appeared poised to do so last year when talks on his signature climate legislation stalled, but he did not ultimately take the step.”
Forward Blue: Petition
“We need the Biden administration and Congress to take meaningful action NOW! President Biden MUST declare climate an emergency under the National Emergencies Act and allow us to fast-track green energy. With an executive order, President Biden could declare climate change a national emergency. Doing so would allow him to reinstate our ban on crude oil exports, end dirty energy projects, redirect disaster funds, and fast-track renewable transportation and clean power,” writes Forward Blue in a newsletter from Progressive Reform Network in California.
→ Forward Blue’s petition was signed by 6,691 people on 23 August 2023
For Our Children: petition
In Oakland, a group called For Our Children also runs a petition which is open for international signatories as well, calling on President Biden to use his power under Article II Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution and “declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency at a “For the Sake of Our Children” National Emergency Joint Session of Congress, which is internationally streamed, and nationally televised and radio-broadcast.”
The group’s idea is that “There on a large, wide-screen TV, nationally televised, nationally and internationally streamed, and on-radio, Congress and the public at home and work will see various forwardable videos showing we’re already in these interlinked climate, pollution and biodiversity emergencies.”
“They’ll also see up close and personal videos of mostly Republicans but some Democrats and independents who used to not believe we’re in any of these emergencies, let alone that they threaten their children, but who now know better — while their Representative and Senators still don’t, at least not until after this National Emergency Video Presentation.”
The declaration is then to be followed up with a ‘Plan to Make Continually Reducing Pollution More Profitable Than Polluting’.
About 15 years ago, Tom Kahan and a friend of his, Leanne Grossman, collaborated on the website TimeToGetSmarter and on a petition to President Obama, similar to this one.
“Our more recent website, ForOurChildren.Love, is more robust as it offers various ways for people to spread the word,” says Mr Kahan. “It also shows how many people in each zip+4, state and country signed it, designed to persuade U.S. representatives, senators and the president to support the petition and its plan.
As for timing, Mr Kahan’s hope is that “soon, a snowball will become an avalanche and later this year, maybe after our looming hot summer, or next spring, before the November elections, the President, who called global warming an ‘existential threat to humanity’ will finally act like it, with the pressure from many people here and abroad who signed it.”
The appeal has been signed by more than 100 people at this point.
Presidential emergency declaration
Legislation is currently pending in the U.S. Congress to urge Biden to declare a national climate emergency. The House version, offered by Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has 79 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The Senate version, offered by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has six Democratic co-sponsors. A similar effort during the previous Congress failed, and the odds are considered long in the current Congress, too. In any case, the resolution would be nonbinding.
Also, some of Biden’s allies in Congress, such as Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have introduced legislation that would require the president to declare a climate emergency and mobilise federal agencies to implement a Green New Deal agenda.
According to the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, quoting environmental reform supporters in Congress and the environmental movement, president Biden could implement powers granted under three laws to respond more forcefully to climate change: the National Emergencies Act, the Defense Production Act, and the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
However some legal experts say a climate disaster declaration might not withstand scrutiny at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is increasingly critical of efforts to extend presidential authority in cases that are not explicitly authorised by Congress.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the president has called the climate crisis an emergency since “day one,” noting that Biden has used the Defense Production Act to jumpstart heat-pump manufacturing and the building of the electric grid. He’s also used the DPA to deploy money to stand up solar manufacturing and source needed materials for electric vehicles.
→ Grist – 14 August 2023:
What it might look like if President Biden really declared a climate emergency
“Activists say nothing short of an emergency declaration will address deadly heat — and the fossil fuel dependency driving it.”
→ Grist – 25 January 2021:
Chuck Schumer wants Biden to declare a ‘climate emergency.’ What does that mean?
“38 countries have already made some kind of emergency declaration on climate change.”
→ Common Dreams – 20 July 2022:
Sunrise: Biden, Declare a Climate Emergency
Statement by Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash
Today would be a good day for the president to declare a climate emergency. https://t.co/vUdSLxoaNp
— Rebecca Solnit (@RebeccaSolnit) June 8, 2023