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Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that President Joe Biden should consider declaring climate change a national emergency. This comment comes as Biden’s climate action agenda begins to take shape: in his first week in office, the President signed executive orders canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris Agreement, and is expected to announce that he will move toward banning new oil and gas leasing on federal land. Schumer believes that declaring an emergency could expedite key legislation in the fight against climate change.
Why This Matters: After four years of climate apathy under Trump, the U.S. government is in a rare position to take swift and comprehensive action to fight climate change. President Biden has made it clear he is prepared to reverse over 100 Trump environmental rollbacks. Even so, the damage done in the last four years has only accelerated climate change disasters across the nation. Storms and natural disasters are getting stronger, fires are burning hotter, and droughts threaten to become permanent.
The nation finds itself staring down the barrel of a gun the Trump administration and its corporate allies spent four years loading. Unlike when Trump declared an emergency to fund his, to quote Schumer, “stupid wall,” if Biden declares a national climate emergency, will be a fitting move to address the urgency of the climate crisis.
What would declaring a national emergency do?
Declaring a national emergency would give the president more powers to combat climate change and divert funding toward green policy without going through Congress. These powers include stockpiling and distribution of key resources and forcing industries to give priority to government contracts, both of which could be crucial to accelerating the development of clean energy infrastructure. As Dan Farber, law professor and faculty director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley explained to Mother Jones,
“What declaring an emergency does is allow the president or administrative agencies to then take advantage of a long list of statutes that have national emergency triggers,” as permitted by the National Emergencies Act of 1976 that can help the federal government fast-track the President’s climate agenda.
Ok, but he has Congress on his side, why not just pass legislation?
While Democrats have a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, legislation typically needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, which will make it particularly difficult to attract enough Republican votes and pass green legislation as well as Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
Democrats have been exploring how they might attach these policies to spending-related bills, like the new COVID-relief package, in reconciliation to pass them with only a simple majority, but there won’t be many opportunities to do that.
Resistance on the Right: Despite many supporting the declaration of a national emergency for an imagined threat at the border, GOP legislators don’t believe the same is necessary for the very real threat presented by climate change. Senator Marco Rubio (R – Fla.), who didn’t support Trump’s emergency declaration at the time, told CNBC in 2019 that he feared the declaration would open the door for Democrats to act more boldly on climate action (that’s kind of the goal…). “If today, the national emergency is border security … tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change,” he said. If Biden declares an emergency, it will likely face legal action from the GOP.
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