It's Essential to Act on Climate Emergencies Unfolding on a Heating, Flooding, Fiery Planet but a Mistake for Biden to Declare One
A Watchwords entry on #climateemergency - clarify terms and then pursue actions.
Track my companion live video webcasts at the Columbia Climate School Sustain What page, including a live show on water crises and solutions and our "long emergency, which you can now watch here:
With pressure from the left building again on President Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency, it's time for a #Watchwords entry on this phrase, both on the wider use of "emergency" in climate context and in relation to what presidents and other leaders can or should do under laws like the 1976 U.S. National Emergencies Act.
Send me your Watchwords thoughts on emergency and other terms
I'm not against the phrase. It's a great starting point for solution-focused discussion. What's your definition? Who is facing the emergency? What forces, local and global, are driving it? What are the remedies?
I'm with the longtime climate campaigner Bill McKibben (his latest dispatch) and Princeton Class of '22 grad Hannah Reynolds (in The Nation) on the deeply broken and dangerous state of humanity's relationships with energy and climate.
Climate emergencies abound - most of them still the result of underlying vulnerability emergencies. And without greatly intensified action to slow warming by cutting and sopping up heat-trapping gases, most the result of the global fossil fuel binge, humans absolutely face what James Howard Kunstler back in 2005 described as a "Long Emergency" (which is why he's joining my webcast today with the authors Erica Gies and Eric Sanderson).
But I disagree with McKibben, Reynolds and dozens more on the merits, political and practical, of Biden moving from his appropriate rhetoric now - saying we're in an emergency and why - to the formal step.
My reasoning is both practical and political, drawing a lot on the deeply-researched argument of Elizabeth Goitein at the Brennan Center for Justice and that of Bonnie Kristian, both of whom have been warning about the potential for executive abuse of power and limits of the tool for years. See Kristian's 2019 commentary "America's abuse of national emergencies is the real national emergency."
Read the in-depth report and other background produced by Goitein and others at the Brennan Center. I also appreciate this visual starting point from the Center:
What's your take? Weigh in below or share this post on social media with your response.
Here are a couple more views:
Jean Su, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity who joined litigation against the Trump administration's use of emergency powers to fund the former president's border wall, has been strongly pressing for a national climate emergency. This clip from Democracy Now is really useful to hear:
I reached out to Ed Maibach, a longtime researcher of climate attitudes and George Mason University, the risk communication veteran David Ropeik and others, with this query, referencing a 2019 Twitter thread by Bob Kopp of Rutgers, a longtime climate scientist and IPCC author, and saying, "I'm with Bob Kopp on the issues with a formal declaration, while I'm fine with folks using it in campaigns if they prefer it. (I don't.)."
[Former Republican Congressman] Bob Inglis was on the local Fox station here in DC.... He articulated a good rationale against declaring a climate emergency…durable strategies are necessary, and declaring an emergency might create further political headwinds.
On the other hand, since the world truly is in an emergency situation, and since a majority of the American people (including nearly half of moderate Rs) support declaring a climate emergency IF CONGRESS DOES NOT TAKE ACTION, myself, I’m for the POTUS declaring an emergency. He needs to live up to his promise to the American people, and to America’s promise to the rest of the world. He has limited discretion to do so, but declaring a national emergency will give him more discretion.
David Ropeik focused on the basic behavioral questions:
One reference might be the challenges communicators have with natural disaster (emergency) preparation… getting people to take the risk of earthquakes seriously in CA and Washington, volcanoes in Washington and Oregon, floods in lots of places, hurricanes and nor’easters in New England and mid-Atlantic states. (He included this link to the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.)
The challenge they report is getting people to take these risks seriously because by definition they (emergencies) are rare, and the basic risk perception literature (and lots of real world experience) finds that we don't take low probability risks seriously until we personally feel threatened by them. (Not even HIGH probability risks, in fact, which is why Tony‘s research is so revealing…growing majorities think climate change is serious, and happening now, but few of them think it will seriously harm them or their families.)
So I'd argue being very careful about using a word like “emergency”, on the semantic grounds that in this polarized environment it will be challenged as alarmist, which is expected, but that that charge might resonate with a lot of people. If he does invoke the term, as required in order to take certain additional actions, I would strongly suggest he do a lot of thoughtful risk communication to frame (re-frame, actually) the word “emergency.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, sent this response:
While I support a climate emergency declaration, it reduces no emissions on its own. I believe the most powerful tools that the President has at his disposal are his bully pulpit, the purchasing power of the government, and well-established regulatory and administrative authorities that can limit carbon pollution.
I'll be adding more here, including yours if you submit reflections and ideas in the comments.
Updated | I hope you'll watch my Sustain What discussion with journalist Erica Gies, author of "Water Always Wins," a global tour pointing out the existential threats that arise when people forget the reality in the title, but also paths to building a more respectful relationship with water; and Eric W. Sanderson, a senior ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society best known for his bestseller "Mannahatta - A Natural History of New York City" and the related Welikia Project.
In the second half, we discussed the grounded, sobering provocations of James Howard Kunstler, whose 2005 book "The Long Emergency - Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century," has reemerged as an essential read for obvious reasons.
There was also a great discussion of government-declared climate emergencies in this wider exploration of trust and climate science featuring the Harvard science historian and author Naomi Oreskes and the climate-focused University of Cambridge geographer and author Mike Hulme.
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A decade ago the artist John Allen, a neighbor of mine when I lived in the Hudson River Valley, made this piece, titled "Pending." I'm eager to round up other "long emergency" art so send me your favorites.