Does the climate crisis rise to the level of official national emergency in U.S. law?
Human-caused climate change is real. Many believe that the concurrent environmental effects — such as more frequent and more severe droughts, storms, and wildfires — constitute a “national emergency” in lower case. But does it constitute a “National Emergency” in capital letters?
The National Emergencies Act of 1976 allows a president to declare an official national emergency, which in turn unlocks a number of concurrent presidential powers and authorities. Two of the most prominent national emergencies in American history include the one about terrorism issued by President George W. Bush three days after 9/11, and the one about COVID-19 issued by President Donald Trump in March 2020.
Even as debate abounds about whether *subsequent *actions by both presidents were sound or justified, virtually everybody agrees that the national emergency declarations themselves were justified. In both cases, a significant and immediate concrete event had just occurred: a terrorist attack and the first U.S. death from COVID-19.
Climate change, on the other hand, is a slow persistent phenomenon. Yet some believe that the consequences could be so significant, even if the pace isn’t, that it merits a presidential declaration under the National Emergencies Act regardless.
What the two bills do
Amid this backdrop, two competing House bills have been introduced.
The Climate Emergency Act would require the president to declare the climate crisis as an official national emergency. It was introduced in the House on February 4 as H.R. 794, by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR3).
At the same time, an untitled Republican resolution would officially declare the House as opposed to any such national emergency declaration, although it would not outright prevent such a declaration in law. It was introduced in the House on February 15 as H.Res. 125, by Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX11).
What the left says
Democrats argue that the environmental and ecological results of the climate crisis are dramatic enough to necessitate a national emergency, on par with 9/11 and COVID-19.
“Scientists and experts are clear, this is a climate emergency and we need to take action,” Blumenauer said in a press release. “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… It’s past time that a climate emergency is declared, and this bill can finally get it done.”
“As we face the global crisis of climate change, in addition to other crises we face, it is imperative that the United States lead the world in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who plans to introduce a similar or identical version in the Senate, but yet to do so as of this writing. “What we need now is Congressional leadership to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and tell them that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of the planet. Climate change is a national emergency.”
What the right says
Republicans argue that such a national emergency would not reflect a truly immediate threat as other national emergencies have, and as the original 1976 law creating them was intended to address.
“The declaration of a national emergency for purposes of addressing a so-called climate crisis would fall outside the bounds of an emergency as contemplated by the NEA,” Rep. Pfluger wrote in his resolution’s text. “If there were to declare a climate national emergency, President Biden would undeniably break his pledge to ‘be a president for all Americans’ and that he would ‘fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did.’”
Republicans also say that such a national emergency would merely be a prelude to implementing damaging policies in the energy sector.
“A climate national emergency… would magnify [Biden’s] environment agenda,” Rep. Pfluger continued, “that is littered with policies that would drive up consumer costs, produce job losses, drive up federal deficits, increase dependence on oil from foreign countries, and generally disadvantage the United States with nations such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico, as well as adversaries such as China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.”
Odds of passage
The pro-emergency bill has attracted 44 cosponsors, all Democrats. It has been referred to any of seven different House committees for a potential vote: Agriculture, Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Natural Resources, Small Business, or Transportation and Infrastructure.
The anti-emergency resolution has attracted three cosponsors, all Republicans. It has been referred to either the House Energy and Commerce or Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled chamber.