with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden often calls climate change an “emergency.” Soon he will have to decide whether to officially declare it one when he takes office.

Some environmentalists are pushing the president-elect to proclaim global warming a national emergency, giving him more power to take executive actions to tackle it. 

“The reason to do it is not symbolic,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the green groups making the push. “It actually gives the president more power.”

But such a unilateral move may cut too much against Biden's inclinations to try to strike deals across the aisle. 

An emergency declaration could give Biden more tools, especially if Republicans keep Senate control. 

Using emergency authority, Biden may be able to funnel military money to the construction of renewable energy projects, reinstate a ban on exporting oil and lob trade penalties on countries such as Brazil for permitting the destruction of the Amazon. 

A narrowly divided Congress could become an obstacle to broad action on climate change. Republicans retain control of the Senate if they win either one of the two runoff elections in Georgia next month. Even if Democrats win both, Vice President Kamala D. Harris would be the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 chamber. 

Proponents of an emergency declaration note that climate scientists warn the world has just a decade to sharply curb carbon emissions and forestall dangerous levels of warming. 

“Let's call this emergency what it is,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There's so much [Biden] can do without Congress.” 

So far, the Biden transition team isn't promising anything. 

This week, the Center for Biological Diversity sent the Biden transition team a report urging the president-elect to invoke the National Emergencies Act to address both the rise of global temperatures and the loss of species to extinction. Greenpeace, 350.org and Oil Change U.S. are among other left-leaning environmental groups that have endorsed the idea.

During the campaign, Biden pointed to climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the nation, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession and a reckoning over race.

Jamal Brown, a Biden transition spokesman, emphasized Biden's commitment to rejoining the Paris climate accord, but stopped short of endorsing a climate emergency declaration.

“President-elect Biden has called the existential threat of climate change one of the four crises facing our nation, and is taking action now to implement his bold agenda beginning on day one,” he said. 

Unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Biden never vowed to invoke emergency powers to address climate change during the Democratic primary.

A national climate emergency may be another flashpoint between the Democratic Party's left and moderate wings. 

Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said there is plenty the incoming Biden administration can get done issuing regulations and investing in clean energy infrastructure without an emergency declaration.

“The actions that need to be done on climate change can be done without declaring a national emergency,” he said. “Declaring a national emergency needs to be take very seriously.” 

But the bar may have been lowered when President Trump used emergency powers to tap the military budget to fund a wall along the southern border. Last year, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to proceed with that plan

A climate emergency declaration would almost certainly be challenged in court as well. But federal judges are "extraordinarily deferential” to presidents invoking emergency powers, Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity argued. 

It could come at a political cost for Biden.

A big piece of the former vice president's agenda is passing a major infrastructure bill in Congress that will help build out solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and high-speed rail.

“Biden's goal is to bring moderates on board with the clean energy transition,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute who once worked for Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. “Declaring a national emergency will only alienate the moderate senators he needs.” 

He added: “There is a climate emergency. But that doesn't mean you take that measure when you are trying to unite the country.”

Still, such a move has precedent abroad. More than 30 countries recognize climate change as an official emergency, with New Zealand becoming the latest to issue a declaration earlier this week. 

Adrien Salazar, senior campaign strategist at liberal New York-based think tank Demos, noted that U.S. presidents have declared over 60 national emergencies since the National Emergencies Act passed in 1976. He doubts another emergency declaration will alienate most Americans. 

“The Biden administration has to act immediately on climate," Salazar said, "and this is one of the first and simplest things he can do.”

Power plays

Trump moves to sell Arctic oil leases before Biden takes office.

The Bureau of Land Management announced that an auction of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will take place in early January, a timetable that could allow leases to be finalized before Biden’s inauguration.

“The announcement of a lease sale comes sooner than some expected: The Bureau of Land Management did not wait for the comment and nominations period to officially end before scheduling a sale date,” NPR reports.

It’s unclear how much interest the sale, set for Jan. 6, will generate among oil and gas companies, some of whom may be deterred by staunch political opposition to the project and lawsuits from environmental groups. The nation’s largest banks have all ruled out financing for oil and gas development projects in the Arctic. 

Jockeying continues for top roles under a Biden administration.
  • The DNC Environment and Climate Council, a permanent group created in 2019 to push the Democratic Party to prioritize climate change, has endorsed Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to be secretary of agriculture. If nominated and confirmed, Fudge would be the first African American woman in the Cabinet post. She's likely to face competition from Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota also considered to be on Biden's shortlist.
  • The DNC climate council also endorsed Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to serve as secretary of the interior. Haaland, who boasts the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement along with other progressive advocacy groups, could face competition from former interior deputy secretary Michael Connor. Either contender, if nominated and confirmed, would become the first Native American to hold the Cabinet position.
  • On Wednesday the Biden team offered New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) the role of interior secretary, but she turned it down, our colleagues Amy Goldstein and Toluse Olorunnipa report.
  • Meanwhile, more than 70 groups, including the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Greenpeace USA, wrote a letter to Biden urging him not to nominate Mary Nichols to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. As chair of the California Air Resources Board, Nichols won plaudits for her ability to bring businesses on board with the state’s emissions standards, but some progressive environmental groups say that she has not done enough to prioritize poor and minority communities.
  • Biden announced hat Brian Deese will head his National Economic Council. Deese played a leading role in the auto industry bailout under Barack Obama and later helped craft the Paris climate agreement. The appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation, has divided environmental groups. Although some see it as a sign that the administration will prioritize climate issues in its economic policy, some environmental activists objected to Deese’s work at the asset manager BlackRock, which has investments in fossil fuel companies.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) will chair the House Agriculture Committee.

House Democrats voted to elect Scott as the chairman of the committee, following an recommendation from the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the Hill reports. Scott will become the first African American to hold the position. 

“Picking Scott, who represents parts of the Atlanta metropolitan area, reflects a shift in the tradition of selecting a chair from a rural area and shows the growing importance the party places on the committee’s work dealing with food stamps and the school lunch program,” the Hill writes.

The House passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

The bill, which limits transportation and possession of lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats, was featured in the hit Netflix documentary series "Tiger King,” which depicted Joe Exotic, a tiger keeper and zoo owner with an outsized personality in Oklahoma. Lawmakers voted to pass the bill, which will now head to the Senate.

In a bizarre coincidence, a tiger attacked a volunteer at the animal sanctuary of Carole Baskin, one of the chief proponents of the legislation who was also featured in the documentary, hours before the House passed the bill. As our colleague Jaclyn Peiser reports: "On Thursday morning, Candy Couser, who has volunteered at the “Tiger King” star’s Tampa animal sanctuary for five years, was about to feed a 3-year-old male tiger named Kimba, when she noticed something was off with his cage. Kimba was locked out of the section where he usually ate. Without waiting for a supervisor to help, Couser broke protocol and opened the first gate, according to Big Cat Rescue, and reached into the cage to unclip the second one. "That’s when Kimba lunged at Couser, sunk his teeth into the 69-year-old’s arm and 'nearly tore it off at the shoulder.' "

The Trump administration approved seismic testing to search for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a record of decision allowing oil and gas companies to continue a controversial method to search for oil deposits in the Gulf’s Outer continental shelf, the Hill reports. Although the bureau included some measures to mitigate the impacts of seismic testing on wildlife, it rejected proposals to stop or reduce the testing.

Critics argue that the testing is dangerous to marine wildlife and that the proposed mitigation measures will be insufficient to protect endangered species.

Two more coal companies go into bankruptcy.

White Stallion Energy LLC and Lighthouse Resources Inc filed for bankruptcy this week, blaming low prices for thermal coal and declining coal consumption, the Wall Street Journal reports. The coal sector has been squeezed by the retirement of coal-fired power plants and competition with cheaper energy sources, like natural gas.

Extra mileage

Pronghorns are flying high in Utah this month.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources warned people last week not to be alarmed “if/when you see ungulates (mostly deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep) dangling from helicopters!"

The animals will get collars and health assessments, according to the agency. Captures usually take place in November and December, Outside Magazine reports.