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Mr. President, we have a climate emergency

Is climate change a national emergency? Just asking the question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of global warming and its consequences.

Climate change has been a national emergency for more than 30 years since scientists reached consensus that it’s real. If we want to put a date on it, it became an emergency on June 23, 1988, when the federal government’s top climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that global warming was underway. “It’s time to stop waffling so much” about the need to do something, Hansen said.

All three branches of the national government have waffled ever since. In what will be remembered as outrageous congressional dysfunction, one senator with financial interests in the coal industry killed the most important climate-action bill since 2009, when the Senate scuttled cap-and-trade legislation that would have engaged market forces to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants if the agency showed the pollution endangered public health and safety. EPA did so. The current Supreme Court reversed that progress with a ruling last month limiting EPA’s authority.

In the executive branch, climate action has been on again and off again since Jimmy Carter’s presidency with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump derailing the efforts of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The Republican Party has made climate change so powerful a wedge issue that downplaying it appears to be required for party membership.

But back to the misunderstanding. The climate emergency is best explained by comparing it to another existential issue. Cancer is a crisis the moment it is diagnosed. Because it can become fatal, we begin treating it immediately, even if it’s metastasizing slowly. That should have been America’s response to climate change from the moment scientists reached consensus about it.  But we waffled, and so did the rest of the world. The international community agreed on a plan only after 23 years of talking about it.

With his climate-action bill shot down in Congress, President Biden is considering whether the climate emergency warrants an official declaration that would give the president extra executive authority to deal with it. There shouldn’t be much debate. If Biden believes his own words that climate change is the “number one issue facing humanity,” he should use all the powers he has to confront it head-on.

Why? Because the following symptoms of global warming are only the beginning:

  • More than one-third of the American population and nearly 500 U.S. counties are experiencing rapidly rising heat. Many “climate hotspots” are in the nation’s biggest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Boston.
  • Sea levels have risen 66 percent faster in the last five years. Coastal flooding has increased an average of 233 percent in the last 20 years. Coastal communities are spending billions of dollars raising roads, building seawalls, installing pumps and moving freshwater wells.
  • More than 40 million Americans and $5.5 trillion in assets are at risk of so-called 100-year floods. Researchers say floods of that magnitude will become annual events in New England and occur once every 30 years elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In the first six months of this year, Americans suffered nine weather and climate mega-disasters, each with damages exceeding $1 billion. Weather-related disasters affected one in 10 U.S. homes last year, causing $57 billion in damages. Natural disasters displaced 10 million Americans between 2008 and 2020.
  • The United States has seen more than 70,000 wildfires burning 7 million acres yearly since 2000, more than double the amount of land in the 1990s. At the end of June, nearly half of the contiguous United States was experiencing drought.
  • Experts predict that in the years ahead, climate change will “reshape America” by causing a  population migration comparable to the Dust Bowl. Over the last 12 years, more than 250,000 Americans left counties at high risk of climate change, most fleeing extreme heat and drought. A recent survey found that 64 percent of respondents said climate change is a reason to move.
  • Yet, others are moving into climate hotspots. The real-estate company Redfin reports the 50 U.S. counties with the largest share of homes exposed to fires, drought, floods and storms experienced population growth from 2016 to 2020. The National League of Cities says developers on the East Coast are building new housing as much as three times faster in places vulnerable to floods than in safer areas.
  • More deadly and destructive weather extremes mean more federal spending for disaster prevention, relief and recovery. The White House Office of Management and Budget says the government would lose as much as $2 trillion in income and spend as much as $128 billion annually this century if it doesn’t do more to prevent global warming. That means higher taxes, cuts to essential federal services, or both.

Biden shouldn’t be swayed by a recent YouGov poll where respondents ranked climate change and the environment last on their list of worries among 14 leading issues. In the real world, climate change adversely affects most of the issues respondents ranked high, including jobs and the economy, health care, national security, government spending, foreign policy and immigration. All of them are threatened by the collateral damage of global warming.

Biden might point that out to voters as he uses all the powers available to him to move America onto the right side of history.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

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