Why Biden is hedging on a climate emergency declaration

The difference between proclaiming an official climate emergency "in practice" and in actuality is more than just rhetorical hair-splitting

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden
(Image credit: Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The scenery: epic. The subject: apocalyptic. Perched at the edge of the Grand Canyon's Yaki Point lookout in Arizona for a rare one-on-one interview with the Weather Channel, President Biden bemoaned the "existential threat" to humanity posed by climate change, highlighting the "significant progress" his administration has made in addressing the challenge, even as he acknowledged the United States' role in leading the world's carbon emissions for a time.

"We've conserved more land, we've rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, we've passed the $368 billion climate control facility," Biden bragged when asked by the Weather Channel's Stephanie Abrams if he was prepared to officially declare a national climate emergency. "We're moving." Pressed by Abrams on whether that meant he had, in fact, made the official declaration, Biden insisted that "practically speaking, yes."

However, the gulf between "practically" and "actually" is in many ways as wide as the canyon upon which Biden's assertion took place. While Biden's list of environmental actions is significant in its own right, an official climate emergency declaration would unlock a suite of federal funds and executive actions to bolster the government's climate change agenda.

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"Young people across the country know that 'practically speaking' President Biden has not declared a climate emergency," Varshini Prakash, executive director of the environmental activist Sunrise Movement group, said in a statement. Although the president might be "using the language of a climate emergency," Prakash continued, "the Administration is not using their power to enforce the life saving actions an actual emergency declaration would offer." Urging the president to declare an "actual climate emergency," the People vs. Fossil Fuels environmental coalition agreed, writing that in this case "the thought does not count."

"An ambitious approach to climate change"

Speaking with CNN's Victor Blackwell this week, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre worked to clarify the president's ambiguous assertion, claiming Biden had been referring to the Defense Production Act, which was "something he did very early on." But while Biden did invoke the Defense Production Act last summer in order to "achieve lasting American energy independence that reduces demand for fossil fuels and bolsters our clean energy economy," he did so after the urging of Republicans and conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Crucially, the action also came amidst tense negotiations over congressional climate action and spending, in which Manchin was a key figure before ultimately walking away from the process. At the time, Biden faced intense pressure and reportedly considered declaring an official Climate Emergency, but eventually demurred after the Inflation Reduction Act, replete with a host of environmentally focused sections, passed later that year. As CNN noted, the DPA is "unrelated" to the sort of National Emergency Declaration climate activists have pushed for, which would allow the president to "restrict the export of crude oil and end offshore drilling, among other authorities."

"There is a narrative, there is a story to tell," Blackwell allowed, after Jean-Pierre's assertion that the Biden administration has taken a "really ambitious approach" to climate change. Jean-Pierre's colleague, White House spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández tried to thread a similar needle, telling Politico's E&E News that Biden has been "crystal clear" in treating climate change as "an emergency — the existential threat of our time — since day one."


The "hullabaloo" over whether "practically" is enough to make up for not "officially" declaring a National Climate Emergency is a "reminder of the wider White House approach," Axios said, pointing to the administration's selectivity with oil and gas leasing, even as it pushes for more near-term production and the "geo-strategic benefits to U.S. resources" that come from weaning the nation off Russian oil. Biden has also claimed that the courts have been "limiting his ability to restrict development" even further. When the president backed away from making an emergency declaration last year, the New York Times noted that the operating principle behind the decision was that the country was already in "the grips of the disastrous impact of climate change" and that rather than seeking to cut emissions, the White House would instead work to "lessen" climate change's "impact on households and communities."

While Biden's measures have been, in the words of Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, "clearly necessary," they also belie a fundamental reality for this administration: Republican opposition to more sweeping actions such as a full emergency declaration. Earlier this summer, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) introduced a bill to bar the White House from declaring a National Climate Emergency at all. Dubbed the "Real Emergencies Act," the bill would "prevent Biden from using three primary statutory authorities available (the National Emergencies Act, the Stafford Act, and section 319 of the Public Health Service Act) to declare a national emergency solely on the basis of climate change," Pfluger said in a press release, insisting nevertheless that "actual national emergencies or major disasters (hurricanes, flooding, etc.) may still be declared." Notably, Pfluger heads the San Antonio based Gentry Creek Energy LLC, described in his 2021 financial disclosure report as an "energy company engaged in pipelines and infrastructure."

The debate over declaring a National Climate Emergency presents challenges not only to the president in terms of immediate governance, but also to his campaign, while he gears up for his 2024 reelection run. In that arena, Biden must sell "skeptical Americans on the benefits of his already-enacted climate agenda while balancing the concerns of those who don't feel like he's done enough," CNN said, citing a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll that shows nearly 60 percent of the country disapproving of his climate record.

Political juggling aside, the administration's effort to have it both ways on a climate emergency has only managed to anger some activists who worry the White House is simply not up to the challenges associated with global climate change. "Biden has, in fact, failed to declare a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act, failed to harness his executive powers, and failed to take lifesaving action to end fossil fuels," Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, told The Hill. "Practically speaking, Biden has devastated communities and wildlife by backing disastrous carbon bombs from Alaska to Appalachia."

"But," Siegel added, "the president can still become the leader we need by declaring a climate emergency for real."

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