Climate Change Is Not a “National Emergency”

A Democratic president shouldn’t try to do the same end run around democracy that Trump is attempting.

Ilhan Omar with microphones in front of her.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-M.N., speaks at a press conference outside the Capitol on Feb. 7.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

As soon as President Donald Trump started talking about declaring a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, climate Twitter lit up with all sorts of “The real national emergency is climate change” takes. Which is fine, as far as Twitter advocacy goes. Climate change represents a radically larger threat to U.S. and global well-being than does the current immigration situation in the United States, at least from my perspective as a nonexpert on immigration and something of an expert on climate change.

But those clever tweets might be taking on the form of something more real. Last week, Ilhan Omar, Democratic representative from Minnesota, tweeted, “Our next President should declare a #NationalEmergency on day 1 to address the existential threat to all life on the planet posed by Climate Change.” Other prominent national Democrats have made similar pronouncements.

I find this troubling for a few reasons.

As a matter of first principles, I have no idea what declaring a climate emergency would practically entail. With the border, the practical effect is clear: Troops are deployed to begin constructing a physical wall. Whatever one thinks of the sense or constitutionality of this, we all know what it means. Not so with a climate emergency. Would it mean creating a national clean energy standard by fiat? Seizing fossil fuel industries and shutting them down? Enforcing new low-carbon, low-travel, and low-meat shifts in consumption? University of California, Berkeley law professor Dan Farber considered several of the options, which ran the gamut from building more clean energy infrastructure to imposing sanctions “against companies or countries trafficking in fossil fuels.”

If you think of climate change as a problem that requires declaring a national emergency, I imagine you might find any or all of these options acceptable. What’s less clear is whether Congress or the public would actually fall in line behind any of these ideas.

Indeed, any hypothetical agenda might not matter in the real world. Building a wall on the U.S. border might not pass muster with the Constitution or Congress. As of this writing, House Democrats are even mobilizing to prevent Trump’s border emergency from taking effect (though their efforts seem destined for presidential veto). So, as Michigan State University’s Matt Grossmann pointed out, there is shaky statutory authority for the executive branch to actually do anything that might rise to the level of emergency action in response to climate change. To some degree, all of the tweets, the calls by politicians, and this very article might amount to sound and fury, signifying little.

But the way we talk about problems matters, and declaring a national climate emergency fundamentally misunderstands the challenges posed by climate change. As Amy Harder wrote at Axios (reportedly inspired by Joseph Majkut of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank ), climate change is more like “diabetes for the planet” than, say, an asteroid zooming toward Earth. That is to say, the problem is chronic, manageable, born of abundance, and something we can make worse with our actions. To imagine that it is practically possible to fix the problem in the next 10 years, or to ignore the major long-term warming impacts that we’ve already guaranteed, does a disservice to real efforts to decarbonize and adapt to our changing world. Climate action is much more likely to be a long, hard process, not a satisfyingly revolutionary one. Hunker down.

What might worry me most is that, like Trump’s recent move, the declaration of a national emergency in the name of climate change amounts to an end run around democracy. And this would not be the first ecological challenge in which scientists and activists demanded an authority higher than the populace’s. The famous 2009 “planetary boundaries” hypothesis explicitly proposed geophysical limits that must be enforced by institutions sitting above democracy. These included climate change but also freshwater use, land use change, and other environmental measures. As Oxford’s Steve Rayner put it, “the framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived nonnegotiable limits obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change.” Indeed, several of the idea’s leading advocates argued affirmatively for such a power structure, proposing “an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected.”

I cannot help but recall this overt attempt at a scientistic power grab when I hear calls for a national, highly partisan climate emergency. The strategy is the same: There is a line in the sand—say, a planetary boundary or, in this case, the 1.5-degree temperature threshold recently studied by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—and all social or political considerations become subservient to that restriction. Rather than mobilizing support and generating political buy-in for what is sure to be a decades-long effort to cope with rising emissions and temperatures, a national emergency or “wartime mobilization” is imagined to solve our problems cleanly and suddenly.

This is the essence of magical thinking, and it imbues science with an authority beyond its reach. As Zeppelin University’s Nico Stehr has written, “the vision of a scientifically rational and beneficent authoritarian regime is thus incoherent because it treats a simple technical goal—the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—as if the very fact of its articulation should automatically illuminate an optimal pathway for transforming the complex global energy system on which modern societies depend for their survival.” “Scientific knowledge,” he says, “does not and cannot dictate what to do.”

Other novel approaches to the climate challenge run aground on their own obstacles. Right- and libertarian-leaning carbon tax advocates lead with a tax—hardly a recipe for political popularity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal has, so far, lacked for detail and maximized for backlash. There exists no perfect response to climate change. But at least these make earnest attempts to build enduring coalitions, to genuinely raise the salience of the issue in front of citizens, and to connect climate change to other things people care about: jobs, justice, and the like.

That is our path to walk. As much as hyperpolarization, climate denial, the universal filibuster, and the rest of it frustrate me, democracy is the only way forward. Hunker down.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.