Governments declaring climate emergencies are all the rage these days. On Tuesday, a resolution slated to be introduced in Congress aims to get the U.S. as a whole to join the growing number of towns, states, and countries recognizing that yes, climate change is an emergency.
Representative Earl Blumenauer introduced that resolution along with fellow Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. The legislation text makes a pretty clear cut case, and 450 state and city officials have already joined the legislators in calling for a plan to deal with the climate crisis. Despite that, the resolution is explicitly symbolic and has basically zero chance of passing Republican-controlled Senate, though if it comes to a vote, it will at least put everyone on the record for where they stand.
“Declaring climate change a national emergency will help us focus and enact sweeping reforms across government to help everyday people cope with the transition that’s going to be required,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a call with reporters.
The five-page resolution succinctly lays out the case for why climate change is an emergency. It includes a mix of basic science (the Earth is getting hot and human greenhouse gas pollution is the cause) and the impacts on society from increasing disease burden to the disproportionate impacts on the poor. And perhaps most importantly, it lays out the opportunities of action, noting the U.S. “stands uniquely poised to substantially grow the economy and social and health benefits from a massive mobilization of resources and labor that far outweigh the costs of inaction.”
The declaration looks to follow in the footsteps of Canada, Ireland, and the UK, all of which have passed climate emergencies through their respective legislatures. It also got a big local boost on Tuesday afternoon when 450 local officials from 40 states called for a national plan to deal with the climate crisis. The group, which endorsed the Green New Deal last year, called for the the responsible phase out of fossil fuels among other tactics to reduce carbon pollution and with it, the existential risks posed by climate change.
“There is no single more important issue than addressing climate change for our municipality, nation, and planet, period,” Melanie Bagby, Mayor of Cloverdale, California, said in a press release. “This is a global emergency.”
While the local calls for support will bolster the case for the climate emergency declaration in Congress as it has in other countries, the big difference between the U.S. Congress and countries that have passed their own declarations is the widespread climate denial that pervades the Republican party. The forms of denial vary from outright denying basic science to arguing we need more studies (we don’t) to hand waves at how innovation could magically solve the problem. While Democrats could, in theory, muster the votes to pass the declaration through the House without a single Republican signing on, the Senate is a whole other story. And you need only look at the dumb symbolic vote on the Green New Deal Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held in March to see how any vote on the climate emergency declaration would likely go if it ever made it to the floor.
There are also very real questions about the value of these types of emergency declarations. More than 740 governments have declared them so far, but the few national governments that have aren’t exactly living up to the promise. Canada’s was promptly followed by the government green lighting a tar sands pipeline. The UK—which was the first nation in the world to declare a climate emergency—has done slightly better by declaring it would get its carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, but there are serious issues with carbon accounting for how it could get there. That raises concerns that any emergency declaration could end up just being empty words to assuage concerns about the crisis while letting it get worse and providing political cover.
None of this is to say Blumenauer, Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders or all other climate emergency advocates want to use it that way. But it’s a good reminder that calling something an emergency without acting like it is a risky proposition.