(Just Security | Feb. 25, 2021) Members of Congress recently introduced legislation mandating the declaration of a national climate emergency, while Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) invited President Joe Biden to declare climate change a national emergency. Reaction to these calls for a climate emergency has been mixed. Some environmentalists cheered. Others argued that using emergency powers to address climate change won’t help Biden fight it and would pose an unacceptable risk to democratic governance.
These criticisms are not unfair, and they deserve careful consideration. But in light of the current, sobering state of climate science as well as the scientists’ call to take transformational action this decade, a climate national emergency should not be dismissed out of hand.
To be sure, declaring a climate emergency will not “solve” the climate crisis, and it shouldn’t be a substitute for legislative efforts and the work of the international Paris Climate Agreement (which the United States recently re-joined). It would, however, send a powerful signal from the White House about the urgency of the climate crisis—while also activating several legal authorities that could be put to work immediately. It would also reflect reality. A legal climate emergency acknowledges what climate scientists and experts already know: We are in a state of planetary emergency.
Climate Change: The One-Shot Problem
Climate change is complicated by a unique temporal characteristic that penalizes inaction. Because greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stay in the atmosphere for decades, dithering on climate action imposes escalating costs that rise over time. Unlike other thorny problems (e.g. health care, immigration), we may lack the luxury of ever coming back to the political system for a climate retry in the future—this is the so-called “one shot” problem. At some point, the effects of climate change will be too acute, have had too much impact, or be too late to stop or reverse. Climate scientists exclaim that now is the time for political leaders to take our “climate shot” or risk irreversible, catastrophic harm, not just to Americans, but to humans as a species …