Energy & Environment

Against a ‘Climate Emergency’ Power Grab

President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Monday that President Joe Biden should declare climate change a national emergency. “The move,” he argued, would allow the president to do “many, many things under the emergency powers.”

Indeed, such executive action would allow the president to bypass Congress and imbue Biden with unprecedented power to regulate American energy policy. The alleged “climate emergency” touches virtually every aspect of economic life.

This executive overreach would almost surely spark litigation from numerous states. It would also undermine regulatory stability, as each successive president either imposes decrees or undoes the policies imposed by previous administrations, leaving a perpetually shifting regulatory environment (which we already, to a significant extent, have). This is not the way the United States is supposed to be governed.

While there are many substantive policy problems with declaring a “climate emergency,” there are also constitutional ones. Last year, presidential candidate Biden rightly argued that “you can’t [legislate] by executive order unless you’re a dictator. We’re a democracy. We need consensus.”

When President Trump relied on emergency powers to redirect military funds to build portions of his border fence, we noted that it was “unwelcome step in America’s long march toward unilateral government by the executive.” At the time, Schumer agreed, calling it “an outrageous power grab by a president who refuses to accept the constitutional separation of powers.”

What’s changed? Nothing other than the names of the parties and the scope of power being grabbed.

Biden has promised to transform the United States into a 100 percent clean-energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050 and to decarbonize the power sector in a mere 15 years. The massive cost of policies that deny Americans affordable and abundant energy sources would almost certainly fail to win approval in Congress under its usual rules. Which is why Democrats are doing everything they can to short-circuit or make an end-run around the system.

The majority leader told MSNBC that Democrats were also trying to figure out ways to sneak climate-change policy into Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan under reconciliation, a budget tactic that allows some spending-related bills to pass with only a simple majority in the Senate. Depending on the particulars, that might be an abuse of the process, and would likely be objectionable on policy grounds, but would at least involve congressional action.

Biden has already done much to advance his climate agenda via pen and phone. He issued a slew of consequential climate-related executive orders, rejoining the Paris climate agreement without Senate ratification, enacting a moratorium on new federal oil and gas leases, and shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline by revoking permits for the project. This would only be a taste of the job-killing initiatives he’d undertake after declaring a “climate emergency.” Biden, remember, has previously stated that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal offers the “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”

Climate change is not an existential threat that warrants a declaration of emergency. If Schumer wants to tackle the problem, he presides over the world’s most powerful legislative body. He is free to try to build consensus, compromise, and pass enduring federal legislation. Or not. Whatever the case, it’s certainly not his job to implore the executive branch to take yet more unilateral power at the expense of the Congress.


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