“The reason to do it is not symbolic,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the green groups making the push. “It actually gives the president more power.”
But such a unilateral move may cut too much against Biden’s inclinations to try to strike deals across the aisle.
An emergency declaration could give Biden more tools, especially if Republicans keep Senate control.
Using emergency authority, Biden may be able to funnel military money to the construction of renewable energy projects, reinstate a ban on exporting oil and lob trade penalties on countries such as Brazil for permitting the destruction of the Amazon.
A narrowly divided Congress could become an obstacle to broad action on climate change. Republicans retain control of the Senate if they win either one of the two runoff elections in Georgia next month. Even if Democrats win both, Vice President Kamala D. Harris would be the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 chamber.
Proponents of an emergency declaration note that climate scientists warn the world has just a decade to sharply curb carbon emissions and forestall dangerous levels of warming.
“Let’s call this emergency what it is,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s so much [Biden] can do without Congress.”
So far, the Biden transition team isn’t promising anything.
This week, the Center for Biological Diversity sent the Biden transition team a report urging the president-elect to invoke the National Emergencies Act to address both the rise of global temperatures and the loss of species to extinction. Greenpeace, 350.org and Oil Change U.S. are among other left-leaning environmental groups that have endorsed the idea.
During the campaign, Biden pointed to climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the nation, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession and a reckoning over race.
Jamal Brown, a Biden transition spokesman, emphasized Biden’s commitment to rejoining the Paris climate accord, but stopped short of endorsing a climate emergency declaration.
“President-elect Biden has called the existential threat of climate change one of the four crises facing our nation, and is taking action now to implement his bold agenda beginning on day one,” he said.
Unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Biden never vowed to invoke emergency powers to address climate change during the Democratic primary.
A national climate emergency may be another flashpoint between the Democratic Party’s left and moderate wings.
Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said there is plenty the incoming Biden administration can get done issuing regulations and investing in clean energy infrastructure without an emergency declaration.
“The actions that need to be done on climate change can be done without declaring a national emergency,” he said. “Declaring a national emergency needs to be take very seriously.”
But the bar may have been lowered when President Trump used emergency powers to tap the military budget to fund a wall along the southern border. Last year, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to proceed with that plan.
A climate emergency declaration would almost certainly be challenged in court as well. But federal judges are “extraordinarily deferential” to presidents invoking emergency powers, Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity argued.
It could come at a political cost for Biden.
Still, such a move has precedent abroad. More than 30 countries recognize climate change as an official emergency, with New Zealand becoming the latest to issue a declaration earlier this week.
Adrien Salazar, senior campaign strategist at liberal New York-based think tank Demos, noted that U.S. presidents have declared over 60 national emergencies since the National Emergencies Act passed in 1976. He doubts another emergency declaration will alienate most Americans.
“The Biden administration has to act immediately on climate,” Salazar said, “and this is one of the first and simplest things he can do.”
Agreed! “Let's call this emergency what it is." If Biden proclaims global warming a national emergency, it gives him more power to take executive actions to tackle it. #ClimateEmergencyhttps://t.co/vlSf1cpEsO
— Climate Emergency Fund (@ClimateEFund) December 7, 2020