The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No, Biden shouldn’t declare a national emergency on climate

President Biden at the White House on February 24. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Biden is being pressured to declare a “climate emergency,” which would give him special powers to circumvent Congress and fight climate change. He shouldn’t do it.

Climate policy is a politically contentious matter. While few deny anymore that human behavior is warming the climate, there’s a lot of dispute about everything else. We aren’t sure how quickly the climate is warming or how much it will heat up. The tradeoffs needed to reduce emissions are controversial, and even climate activists argue against some reasonable measures to mitigate the issue. Increasing the use of nuclear power for electricity generation, for example, would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet most climate activists eschew that approach out of fears of nuclear waste contamination or accidents.

Moreover, climate change does not easily fit the common definition of an emergency. Most people would view an emergency as something that arises quickly, often by surprise. It also has clear objectives, such as delivering aid to an area hit by a hurricane. Finally, and crucially, it is something that can be successfully met with the powers and resources at the government’s disposal.

Climate policy meets none of these tests. We have been aware of the warming climate for decades, yet we haven’t done what climate activists have wanted to address it because the policy tradeoffs required haven’t garnered majority support among Americans. Environmentalists might be happy to raise gas prices, ramp down fossil fuel production and even reduce meat consumption as means to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Most Americans remain unconvinced.

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The sheer complexity of fighting climate change also means neither the objective nor the means are clear cut. Virtually every aspect of human behavior creates greenhouse gasses. Deciding which realms of activity should bear which burdens over what period of time would be at the heart of any serious climate policy. That’s qualitatively different from the Federal Emergency Management Agency organizing a coordinated response to a natural catastrophe.

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Then there’s the decisive fact that the United States cannot stop climate change alone even if the government does everything climate activists want. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the United States produces only 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Biden administration’s ambitious goals would only have reduced annual emissions by 2.5 billion tons by 2030. That would barely offset the global rise in emissions between 2014 and 2018. In other words, the United States would undergo massive economic dislocation and barely make a dent in the ongoing problem.

Fighting climate change effectively and rapidly means doing something that even climate activists often shy away from proposing: starting a global trade war. Emissions in the United States and the European Union are dropping, but standards of living there are being supported by importing products being made more cheaply in other places. This essentially offshores emissions to places with dirtier and cheaper sources of energy, such as coal. That is causing global emissions to rise more quickly than developed countries can cut theirs.

Rapid decreases in global emissions are therefore only possible by reversing this globalization through border carbon adjustments, or tariffs weighted for the carbon input of imported goods. Imposing those adjustments without any concern about how it will affect the economies of developing nations would start a trade war that would make Trump’s tariffs look like child’s play. And bailing out those nations out through international wealth transfers would likely cause a voter revolt of unimaginable magnitude.

Any attempt by Biden to impose such policies under the guise of a climate emergency would be entirely undemocratic. Upending decades of global trade policy, implemented by negotiated multi-lateral international treaties, by presidential fiat would be arrogant and dictatorial. The political backlash globally would be severe. No rational president would do this.

Climate activists are understandably frustrated by Congress’s refusal to pass laws they want. But that’s what happens in a democracy. If they want their way, they need to make their case to the American people. Perhaps they should even be honest with them about the sacrifices they will need to make rather than selling false happy talk about a painless transition to a “green economy.” Convincing voters will take time, but it’s the only way to secure a national commitment to a long-term, multifaceted climate policy.

Presidential invocations of emergency powers are consistent with democracy only in rare cases of genuine, short-term crises. Fighting climate change is not such an event.