A National Climate Emergency?

Ilya Repin. Barge haulers on the Volga
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

If you want a barge to move, and you kick it, you only hurt your foot. But if you lean on it, sooner or later it has to move your way.” – Joseph O. Fletcher[1]

News reports over the past few days tell us that the White House is contemplating formal declaration of a national climate emergency. We’re told the President himself is expected to speak on this topic later today.

It’s easy to see the motivation. The climate challenge is a present reality, and dire. Average global temperatures continue to ratchet upwards. Britain saw temperatures exceeding 1000F Tuesday – temperatures unheard of throughout more than 300 years of recordkeeping (and Britain itself has declared a state of national emergency). Temperature records are also being broken elsewhere across Europe.  Here in the United States, 40 million people are under heat advisories; more than eighty wildfires are underway (more than half of these in Alaska). Congress seems stalemated on the climate issue, and the Supreme Court has recently ruled against EPA efforts to regulate carbon emissions – and all this in the face of administration promises for climate action. Invoking the National Emergencies Act allows the president to take a range of needed actions unilaterally.

If he does so, President Biden will not be breaking new ground. His predecessors had form, using the policy tool to contend with a range of issues. President Carter invoked the Act (2 times); Reagan (6); G.H.W. Bush (4); Clinton (17); G.W. Bush (12); Obama: (13); Trump (7).

In the present instance, expectations should remain low. For starters, options available to the President under the Act are limited. They’ll necessarily address only pieces of the climate change problem. Benefits and costs will impact Americans unequally. What’s more, the very nature of the Act and the circumstances typically surrounding its use hint at departures from America’s normal governance and democratic procedures. At a time when elements of one political party are calling for suspension of elections-themselves-as-usual, this might not be the best look.

Thanks to the recent (still current?) U.S. covid emergency, all these realities, both positive and negative, are fresh in the public’s mind. Emergency actions slowed the virus onset, buying precious time for America’s healthcare system, keeping it from being overwhelmed by patients in the critical early months. At the same time, accompanying Congressional action reduced household and macro- economic loss. The national emergency allowed time to develop vaccines and inoculate much of the general populace; this limited illness and loss of life and brought the crisis per se to something of an end. By these and other measures, the corresponding National Emergency declaration was a success.

But only barely. Despite the continuing (and still-evolving) threat, Americans show issue-fatigue.  They have tired of precautions. Large public and private gatherings are on the rise after a season of prohibition. For many, mask use is lackadaisical. And in hindsight, some emergency measures were counterproductive. For example, wholesale, extended school closures probably hurt the vast majority of K-12 students more than they were helped by isolation from the virus. The impact on parents of school-age children was also severe.

There’s a mismatch between a “national climate emergency” and the climate change problem in three core respects.

The first is time frame.  Climate change itself is a trend extending over decades. The actions needed to forestall it – e.g., weaning eight billion people off centuries of reliance on fossil fuels – must be sustained over a similar period. This vastly exceeds the duration over which nations and individuals can maintain a sense of urgency.

The second is scale. Fossil-fuel dependence and the reliance on trillions of dollars of investment in corresponding infrastructure can’t be unwound by the small dollar-size, fragmented efforts that can be enabled by presidential directives. Viewed against climate change, these will at best be seen as symbolic and aspirational in nature, and at worst be scorned by detractors as wholly unresponsive, given the scale of the problem. (By contrast, the current British national emergency is laser-focused on minimizing excess death rates due to heat stress, and is commensurate with the time frame of the immediate threat.)

(These mismatches fall squarely within the purview of Joe Fletcher’s “you only hurt your foot.”)

 A third and final mismatch also matters. The urgency and unprecedented nature of the covid pandemic riveted world attention. By contrast, at least here in America, climate change is currently low on the list of public concerns. People are more worried about other issues: e.g., the economy, health care, government taxes and spending, the pandemic, and education. Labels matter too; for example, a recent Gallup poll shows climate change ranking near the bottom of environmental concerns – lagging behind polluted drinking water; polluted rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; loss of tropical rainforests; air pollution; and species extinction.[2]

Fact is, climate change isn’t really even a topic of conversation for most folks. A Yale opinion poll found that only 35% of Americans admit to talking about climate change with others. even occasionally. The other 65% claim they never talk about it.

It’s only natural for those of us in meteorology or the Earth sciences to decry this. We conclude, based on what we know, that we should talk about climate change more, and more effectively convince those around us that the issue is important, even vital, perhaps even existential. After, this is our wheelhouse. We know the subject, and surely we’re most qualified to speak on subject matter we know.

Some work along these lines is certainly needed. However, by itself it will bring little joy. This is a matter of triage – well known in emergency medicine. Doctors are trained, in emergencies to quickly classify incoming patients into one of three categories:  those beyond help; those who can hang on, essentially unaided, at least for a bit; and those that can be saved but only if given immediate attention now.

But every human being, whether young or old, of whatever gender or ethnicity or nationality, does triage continually. Each hour of each day we know what can be ignored, often indefinitely; what exceeds our power to influence; and what our civic or job or family responsibilities dictate we need to do now. For me to come upon you in your thought process and suggest you drop what you’re doing and focus on climate change will be no more welcome, and no more appropriate, than looking over your shoulder and saying, unasked, “forget buying groceries; you need to pay the rent.” Or “you can’t pick up the kids from school; you need to finish your boss’ project.”

Accordingly, those of us in climate science, or climate adaptation practice, etc., should at least some of the time and maybe most of the time take as our starting point with others questions of the character “What is your greatest/most urgent problem at the moment and how can I help?”

If we’re willing “to lean on the barge,” that is, to work with others, however incrementally, to grow the economy and generate jobs, reduce the cost and improve the quality of health care, foster high quality public education, etc., we’ll over time build a public and a world more concerned and better equipped to climate change.

And that public support will make it easier for our leaders at the federal level – the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court – work together where possible and independently where necessary to cope with climate change.


[1] I worked for and with Joe Fletcher for an extended period of years; over time he shared this particular wisdom more than once. I doubt very much he originated the saying, but a quick Google search has failed to turn up anything useful. Would welcome any reader information on proper attribution.

[2] This despite the fact that climate change aggravates all these issues.

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