The Phoenix

The Case for Declaring a National Climate Emergency

It’s time the U.S. government made it official: We’re in the midst of a major crisis, and we need to act now

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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We are at a critical moment in the entirety of human history

According to NASA data, last year was the hottest year in modern record-keeping — and probably the hottest our planet has been since agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in about 4 million years and is rising at the fastest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

I’ve been saying these words for years now: We are in a climate emergency.

What we do now will have ramifications not only for the rest of our lives but will ripple through the future for as long as life endures on Earth — thousands and millions of years from now.

As dire as all this seems, it is still possible to do enough in the time we have left to avert catastrophe and build a just world that works for everyone. And if it is still possible, then we absolutely must do it. There are no excuses.

In the words of Toni Cade Bambara, via the climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, now is the moment where we need to “make revolution irresistible.”

It’s time to declare a climate emergency

Earlier this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer introduced a bill in Congress that would require President Joe Biden to invoke emergency powers to tackle the climate crisis. Congress should pass it right away.

The Climate Emergency Act of 2021 would unlock 136 statutory powers under the National Emergencies Act, typically available only under extraordinary circumstances. The climate emergency definitely qualifies.

“We have to meet the moment. We are out of time and excuses,” said Ocasio-Cortez in a statement introducing the bill.

The move has the explicit backing of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also voiced her support for a similar idea two years ago.

“If there ever was an emergency, the climate crisis is one,” Schumer said last week.

Biden’s campaign website referred to a climate “emergency” at least nine times, including once explicitly in a fundraising pitch calling for “drastic action” — a sign that he’d also at least tentatively be on board with the move. His first days in office have seen an unambiguous priority on climate action and environmental justice, and declaring an emergency would help him greatly escalate his ambitious climate agenda.

Although Biden could unilaterally declare a climate emergency at any time, doing it via an act of Congress would put the move on firmer legal footing, as Earther’s Dharna Noor explains. Trump used the National Emergencies Act to bypass the Endangered Species Act and other laws to begin construction of the wall at the Southern border, and opposition from Republicans and some Democrats to going this route are sure to be an uphill battle.

The United States would be far from an outlier to take this step. We would join more than 800 million people worldwide in more than 30 countries whose governments have already declared a climate emergency. World leaders, including UN Secretary General António Guterres, have been calling for it for years.

The move also has the backing of key facets of the climate movement. The Sunrise Movement, the Climate Justice Alliance, a constellation of dozens of environmental justice organizations, and the Climate Mobilization, an organization explicitly founded to advocate for adopting a formal climate emergency, are all calling for this bill to pass through Congress.

One by one, our leaders are finally starting to understand the seriousness of our shared situation.

Declaring an official climate emergency is more than just words

Declaring a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act would give Biden nearly everything he needs to begin radically reshaping the economy of the United States for a zero-carbon world and steer American society toward an ecological future. It would be Biden’s best way of launching a Green New Deal.

The text of the bill itself is well worth the read and is perhaps the most succinct and persuasive argument I’ve ever seen for what a full-scale climate mobilization would look like.

The bill is explicit that climate disasters “disproportionately impact frontline communities and endanger populations made especially vulnerable by existing exposure” to injustice, including people “living with income inequality and poverty, institutional racism, inequity on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, poor infrastructure, and lack of access to health care, housing, clean water, and food security are often in close proximity to environmental stressors or sources of pollution, particularly communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities.” In short, the climate emergency is everything; it is intersectional, and it is inseparable from the imperative to fundamentally remake society and move away from an extractive relationship with each other and with the land.

The bill states this plainly: “The massive scope and scale of action necessary to stabilize the climate will require unprecedented levels of public awareness, engagement, and deliberation to develop and implement effective, just, and equitable policies to address the climate crisis.”

Practically, the bill calls for massive investment in public transportation infrastructure, retrofitting of nearly every building in the country, a special focus on public health and regenerative agriculture, a “transformation” of the industrial base of the country, and jobs programs that are racially and socially equitable to carry all this out.

The most striking thing to me: The bill would require an annual progress report on all of these objectives. No more far-off goals for 2050 or 2035. We’d have one-year targets. Every year.

We’d finally have the mindset of an emergency. We’d see tangible results in a timeframe that matters for both people on the front lines of the emergency and the climate system we’re trying to preserve. We’d win back our planet and have a thriving society to enjoy it.

Of course, words alone — even words this bold — won’t make the climate emergency magically disappear on its own. We’ll need to keep holding leaders to account and demanding that our changes are rooted in justice.

If all this sounds good to you, you can help make it a reality: Call your member of Congress — (202) 224–3121 — and ask them to co-sponsor the National Climate Emergency Act. If they’re already a sponsor, thank them.

Folks, this is actually happening. We’re on the verge of moving into emergency mode on the biggest problem we’ve ever faced as a species. Let’s demand that this bold story of a better world get started as soon as possible.

Meteorologist | Climate correspondent

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