Biden’s announcement about climate change being an emergency generated a lot of hype and speculation last week, mostly within the climate movement but also in the larger media sphere, especially as it played into the larger Biden v. Manchin narrative that’s been going on. In some ways, it was truly exciting to hear the president discuss addressing climate change in such strong language; however, in the week since the announcement, the lack of visible progress has made it feel a bit flat, especially to those who trend towards the skeptical.
Let’s review what Biden actually said and what it might and might not mean. While at the site of a former coal power plant turned renewable energy center in Somerset, Massachusetts, Biden made the following statement: “Let me be clear, climate change is an emergency. In the coming weeks, I’m going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal official government actions, through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders, and regulatory power that a president possesses. I will not take no for an answer.”
These remarks were hailed as revelatory by some, but to be clear, Biden was not actually declaring a national emergency for climate change with these words; rather, he was loudly describing climate change as an emergency, which it certainly is, but also feels pretty, well, obvious at this point.
Many have speculated that Biden will indeed officially declare climate change a national emergency, which would allow him to implement some climate policies somewhat unilaterally–though any actions could still be stopped by congress or the courts in the long run.
Although Biden’s “description” of climate change as an “emergency” is not a discouraging step, it does also highlight many challenges and inadequacies of the path of addressing climate change through the executive branch. Namely, that anything Biden is able to do will almost certainly carry less punch than something from Congress, and that Biden’s actions up till now haven’t shown that he’s serious about taking climate action. As Kate Aronoff writes in The New Republic, “The now all but certain death of Build Back Better’s climate provisions has shown that those eager for some kind of climate action—including the White House itself—have lost this round. A national emergency declaration could present another fight: battling over the scope and scale of what Biden does… Climate advocates have spent years drafting plans for how the White House could slash emissions without Congress. Now they’ll have to fight for them, whether Biden declares a climate emergency or not.”
In some ways, Biden’s lexicon surrounding the climate crisis is besides the point– it doesn’t matter if he labels it as an emergency if he doesn’t act like it is. If, however, he is able to inspire some action through his words, and if this type of talk about climate change coming from the president is indicative of changing attitudes more widely, then I’m all for it.
While we wait for word on high though, there’s plenty to do at our more earthly, tangible levels too: Also in The New Republic this week, Emma Marris writes about the power of addressing climate change and climate anxiety through collective action. To quote a seasoned climate activist in the piece, “The most effective thing that anyone can do right now as an individual is to start thinking of themselves a little less as an individual.” No time to stop, drop, and roll in this emergency–better to grab a friend or two plug into the climate movement wherever and however you can.
Til next week!