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Opinion How Joe Biden can act boldly to address the climate crisis

The melted sign of the Oak Park Motel, destroyed by wildfire near Salem, Ore., in September. (Rob Schumacher/AFP/Getty Images)
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Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, represents Oregon in the U.S. Senate.

This September, as Oregon wildfires raged, I drove more than 600 miles up and down our state and never once broke free from a thick cloud of hazardous smoke. I saw towns that had been completely incinerated. I heard the heartbreak, fear and frustration of Oregonians who fled their homes to save their lives. Some of them lost everything.

The record-setting fires are just one example of the climate emergency. We set a record for named storms in the Atlantic and tropical cyclones making landfall in the United States, and this year will likely end up being the hottest on record — making the past five years officially the hottest five on record. Rising sea levels are already displacing coastal communities, pollution is making air dangerous to breathe, crops are failing, pests are multiplying and species are going extinct.

Too many Americans are experiencing the wrath of climate-related disasters firsthand. These disasters are killing our citizens, bankrupting businesses, endangering our national security, and threatening to leave our children a world of growing scarcity and conflict. President-elect Joe Biden said this past weekend that we need to meet climate chaos with “the urgency it demands, as we would during any national emergency." He is absolutely right, and he should use every tool available to him, including declaring a national climate emergency and using emergency powers to take unilateral executive action.

The impacts of the climate crisis will affect us all, but the worst consequences will be borne disproportionately by poor communities and communities of color. This is the case in Oregon, where families already struggling to find affordable housing were left homeless by the fires. Many families simply had nowhere to go, and many who did will be unable to afford to return.

Our ability to take on the climate crisis through legislation will be challenged by the realities of the Senate. If Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) emerges as the majority leader following the runoff elections in Georgia, no serious climate bill will ever get a hearing in committee, much less get to the Oval Office. And even if Democrats win the Senate, passing adequately ambitious legislation will be a struggle with such a razor-thin margin and the need for filibuster reform.

But we cannot wait. We need bold executive action that treats this crisis — quite literally — as the emergency it is.

The National Emergencies Act (NEA) and the Defense Production Act (DPA) give the president broad powers to act in the national interest during grave national emergencies. While President Barack Obama used the DPA to purchase green transportation fuels, neither of these acts has been fully used to address the climate emergency.

Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would not only send a powerful signal about the urgency of bold action, it would unlock powers that allow our nation to take significant, concrete actions regardless of congressional gridlock. Examples include redirecting spending to build out renewable energy systems, implementing large-scale clean transportation solutions and financing distributed energy projects to boost climate resiliency — all of which would help safeguard our communities and slash harmful pollution.

Invoking the DPA would complement a national emergency declaration and help address the national security threats posed by our climate crisis. These powers would allow the Biden administration to take essential steps toward strengthening our emergency preparedness, such as constructing resilient energy infrastructure and mobilizing domestic industry to ramp up manufacturing of clean energy technologies. These are necessary steps to protect Americans from the deluge of violent storms and extreme weather events that are on the horizon. Plus, spawning a robust clean energy industry could generate millions of high-quality American jobs vital to rejuvenating our post-covid economy.

I do not say any of this lightly. I’ve spent the past four years — and, frankly, several years before that — watching, worriedly, the increasing use of executive power and the sidelining of Congress. A president’s emergency powers should never be used wantonly. However, we cannot afford to shy away from tackling this crisis just because President Trump misused the NEA to fund the construction of his racist border wall.

I understand that many people may still feel trepidation about using these powers to address the climate crisis. However, we know that continuing on our current path will be catastrophic, and will hit working people the hardest. On the other hand, if we put in place the right policies, we can create millions of new jobs re-powering the country and cleaning our air.

And let’s not forget that millions of Americans voted for Biden because he promised climate action. Those voters will be demoralized and disillusioned in future elections if we sacrifice their health, livelihoods and futures to prop up fossil fuels. Substantively and politically, we cannot afford to be passive in the face of this crisis.

The climate crisis is one of the biggest emergencies that our country has ever faced, and our time is running out. Americans are counting on Biden to lead accordingly. Let’s act boldly, and treat this crisis like the emergency it is.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: A climate catastrophe is upon us. Biden can still make a difference.

The Post’s View: Joe Biden must be the climate change president

Kevin Rudd and Bill Hare: Here’s how Biden could get the U.S. to lead on climate change again

Alia Sunderji and Hilary Rosenthal: Colombia’s indigenous children are the casualties of climate change