If This Isn't a Climate Emergency, What Is?

Evan Osnos / The New Yorker
If This Isn't a Climate Emergency, What Is? Temperatures are soaring around the world. (photo: NOAA)

President Biden, at a climate event, stopped short of declaring an emergency, casting the day mostly as a reminder of all that has not been done.

The record-breaking heat wave in Europe this week has produced some haunting scenes: enraged passengers stuck on a train with no air-conditioning; fire consuming homes in the London suburbs; a man escaping a burning town in Spain, his clothes aflame. Reuters distributed a selection of clips, with the label “WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT.”

A warning label of some kind—“DISPIRITING CONTENT,” perhaps—feels appropriate for several other moments this week, each a political grotesque that captures a facet of the paralyzed climate politics in 2022. On Twitter, a popular home-edited clip starts with a scene from the film “Don’t Look Up”—a dark farce about a meteor plunging to Earth—in which a scientist appearing on a morning television show interrupts the blather and declares, “We’re trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.” The host recoils, then says, “We just keep the bad news light.” The clip next jumps to an actual moment on actual British television. On July 14th, as the heat wave approached, Bev Turner, a host on GB News, a conservative British broadcaster, chided a meteorologist about “enjoying the sunshine” and asked, “It’s not too hot, is it?” The meteorologist, John Hammond, squinting into the camera, flashes an irritated look and shifts to “a serious note, folks”: “I think there will be hundreds, if not thousands of excess deaths,” he said. The host tries to interrupt, but Hammond continues: “It will be brief, but it will be brutal.” Turner eventually drowns him out. “Oh, John, I want us to be happy about the weather,” she says. “I don’t know whether something happened to meteorologists to make you all a little bit fatalistic and harbingers of doom.”

Straining to reflect the urgency of the moment, President Joe Biden, on Wednesday, braved a sweltering afternoon in New England to express alarm, even if his actions were of modest substance. At the site of a former coal power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, he announced additional money for cooling centers and infrastructure improvements, and actions to expand the offshore-wind-energy industry. “I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger,” Biden said. “And that’s what climate change is about. It is literally—not figuratively—a clear and present danger.”

But Biden stopped short of declaring a climate emergency, which many advocates had sought, saying that he needed more time to decide, an absence that cast the day’s events as mostly a visual reminder of all that has not been done. In the span of less than a month, the political prospects in Washington for substantive progress on the climate threat have evaporated. On June 30th, the Supreme Court’s 6–3 ruling in West Virginia v. E.P.A. curtailed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions, thwarting Biden’s ambitious plans to tackle climate change, and presaging what may be further decisions by the Court that could limit considerations of climate change in pipeline construction and undermine efforts to regulate tailpipe emissions.

Then, last week, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, all but killed the Administration’s hopes for legislative progress on domestic issues, by teaming up with all fifty Republicans in the Senate to block a bill that would have included America’s most far-reaching response to climate change. It was an especially galling turn for Democrats who had catered to Manchin for seven torturous months, paring back their ambitions to suit his demands before he abruptly rejected them because he claimed that the bill would contribute to inflation. It was a specious argument; in the final days of negotiation, according to the Times, Manchin was focussed on winning “approval for offshore oil and gas leasing and permitting for a fossil fuel project in his state.”

As usual, Manchin maintains that he is still open to other legislation (on reducing drug prices, for instance), but many Democrats saw his reversal as a clarifying betrayal, an end to a charade of vacuous promises, beginning with his vow to help Biden be “a successful President.” Any hope that Manchin might prefer to be remembered as a dealmaker is fading into the full recognition of what his campaign-finance disclosures report: he has long been one of the Senate’s top recipients of campaign cash from the oil and gas industries; in the most recent quarter, even as he was negotiating climate-change measures, he accepted donations from executives at a long list of energy companies, including Georgia Power, Dominion Energy, Concord Energy, Southern Company Gas, Harvest Midstream, and the Alaska Oil & Gas Association. Not incidentally, his critics note, he is also a personal beneficiary of fossil-fuel-related investments, including from a coal brokerage that last year earned him five hundred and thirty-six thousand dollars—more than triple his hundred-and-seventy-four-thousand-dollar annual Senate salary. Facing criticism for killing the climate bill, Manchin appeared for the cameras and insisted that he had “never” strung Dems along, while declaring to reporters that he has only proletarian motives. “I’m worried about the person that can’t feed their family,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m sorry if they don’t care about that. I do.”

At times, the images have felt like the inevitable makings of a future montage on the collective failure of will, democratic institutions, and leadership. Not long ago, Manchin was the target of intense lobbying by a President who hoped to flatter and cajole him into coöperation. But, by this week, the prospects for persuasion had faded almost entirely, and the signs of crisis made a grim mockery of the political delays in Washington. Temperatures spiked to a hundred and fifteen degrees in places as disparate as Portugal and America’s Great Plains. Nonprofit activist groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, have heightened calls on Biden to use more of his executive powers. For instance, if Biden formally defined climate change as a national-security threat, he could expand use of the Defense Production Act to accelerate the spread of electric public buses, high-speed rail, and passenger-vehicle charging stations. If he went further, and declared a climate emergency, advocates say that he would have the legal power to take measures including ending crude-oil exports and halting billions of dollars in U.S. investment in fossil-fuel projects abroad.

At Biden’s Wednesday event, he said, “Let me be clear: Climate change is an emergency. And in the coming weeks I’m going to use the power I have as President to turn these words into formal, official government actions.” (Asked later to clarify whether he intends to declare an official emergency, Biden told reporters that he was still undecided: “I’m running the traps on the totality of the authority I have.”) Advocates were underwhelmed.

Cara Horowitz, the co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at U.C.L.A. School of Law, told me that the day’s announcements were worthwhile but “small ball.” She explained, “Cooling centers are important. But we can’t get out of this mess by building cooling centers. And I think that’s obvious to everybody, including, I’m sure, to Biden.” Declaring an emergency is not without risk, she pointed out. The current Supreme Court has signalled its suspicion of expanded executive power to address climate goals, so if Biden were to take that action it could end up being reversed in court. “That’s a reason to wonder whether, indeed, this is something useful for Biden to do in this moment,” Horowitz said. “At the end of the day, actions taken under his emergency declaration will be litigated, and the Supreme Court stands at the end of that litigation trail.”

And yet the breadth of obstruction and the mounting evidence of a deadly threat has persuaded some onetime skeptics to favor such a declaration. Horowitz told me she had long been “ambivalent” about emergency powers, but has changed her mind. “I think all of us are asking anew: Are we doing all we can? What more can we do?” she said. “I’m thinking anew about this use of emergency powers, and I really hope Biden is, too.” She added, “There is a utility in being clear about what moment this is. This is an emergency. The head of the U.N. has said this is code red for humanity. If we’re not going to at least try now, it’s not totally clear when one might.”

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