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A Climate Emergency?

The government shutdown is temporarily in remission. Federal workers can start receiving their paychecks as Congress and the White House attempt to work out a longer-term solution. The president continues to threaten to declare a national emergency if Congress won't fund his wall.

Senator Marco Rubio has publicly criticized this strategy, arguing it could set a precedent that could lead a future Democratic president to declare a national emergency over climate change. In response, a number of prominent Democrats enthusiatically gave their support to that notion.

As reported by Grist's Greta Moran:

Rubio’s comment unintentionally helped set the idea in motion. “Do you want to know what a real ‘national emergency’ is?” Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont tweeted. “The scientists tell us that if we don’t combat climate change aggressively, the severe damage done to our country and planet will be irreversible. Now that’s a ‘crisis.’” Former Secretary of State John Kerry and comedian Sarah Silverman joined the chorus, too.

Moran outlines a proposal by Dan Farber, a law professor at Berkeley, regarding how a "climate emergency" might be enacted.

In the case of a climate emergency, the president could theoretically suspend oil leases, support the expansion of battery and electrical vehicles, divert military funds to renewable energy, and impose further regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

Moran then quotes other experts who doubt the president's emergency powers could be used for to combat climate change, and notes that even Farber doesn't think it is practical.

But here's the greater problem: Climate change, like immigration, is not an emergency under any reasonable definition of that word. An emergency, according to Merriam-Webster, is "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action." It fails on two counts. The effects of climate change have been understood for decades now, and we are already seeing strong evidence of those effects in the real world. And while those effects do call for action, we are destroying the world slowly enough that waiting a few weeks, a few months, or a few years won't make a discernable difference in the eyes of most people.

Certainly we could declare disasters in the cases of California wildfires, Texas drought, Mississippi flooding, or Florida hurricanes. But those are discrete events where the extent of the damage can be calculated and the victims can be identified and compensated. An emergency over a global issue like climate change would not clearly identify where funding should go, or for what purpose. Does it go to Alaskan villages needing to relocate due to melting permafrost? Does it go to researchers building artificial trees to absorb excess carbon? What exactly does a "climate change emergency" look like, and who would determine how to solve it?

Grist's Moran spoke to Michael Walleri, who helped Newtok, Alaska get federal funding to relocate.

Walleri pointed to the Stafford Act. Upon declaration of a disaster, the law authorizes the federal government to send aid packages to affected states, local governments, and tribes. It’s typically used for sudden disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. But if the act were amended to encompass disasters that unfold slowly, Walleri said, it could become a tool to help communities deal with the consequences of climate change that play out over time, like melting permafrost or rising seas.

But while this tactic might work, a piecemeal approach will inevitably leave some communities behind. Declaring climate change a national emergency isn't a real solution.

We are well past the point where climate change could be considered an emergent situation. We've spent decades digging ourselves into this hole; getting out of it will require something much more comprehensive than a presidential declaration.

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