Declaring a Climate Emergency: What it means and why it is crucial now more than ever

by Fatma Elrefaei

August 18, 2022

Here is what declaring a Climate Emergency will mean for humanity and why we need to pressure President Biden to deliver on his promise.

On July 20—as the country experienced deadly heat waves, drought, and flood—President Biden announced that his administration would take executive actions to combat the Climate Emergency. The president’s use of his executive powers will be critical in securing a livable future especially as fossil fuel funded members of Congress and the Supreme Court continue their attempts to halt or limit substantive climate action.

Greenpeace USA activists delivered a 16-foot inflatable Earth to the White House along with nearly half a million petition signatures demanding that President Biden declare a climate emergency. The action, which symbolized that a livable planet is in Biden’s hands, kicked off a day of climate emergency rallies in 19 cities across the country.

What is an emergency declaration?

Emergency powers have existed in the U.S. and other countries around the world to enhance the president’s powers in emergencies and unexpected crises that are moving too fast for Congress to respond to timely and appropriately. The National Emergency Act (NEA) was enacted in 1976 to enhance presidential powers in emergencies. While the act doesn’t define an emergency, it provides a framework and mechanisms to ensure the stability and legitimacy of executive decisions. The NEA declares that an emergency will automatically end after one year unless POTUS publishes a renewal notice to the Federal Register, upon a presidential declaration ending the emergency, or if Congress vetoes the emergency. There are currently 37 national emergency declarations in effect including COVID-19 public health in March 2020.


What will a Climate Emergency do? 

Environmentalists have been pushing for a Climate Emergency since 2019. But after the SCOTUS environmental decisions and the Inflation Reduction Act falling short of the benchmarks set by science, the need for a Climate Emergency declaration will help fill the gap in government action. In an emergency declaration, POTUS could reinstate the crude oil export ban, take action on leasing of public lands and waters, and move forward with his climate agenda in a timely manner., In other words, President Biden can do a lot. A few things we hope to see include:

  • Working with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters to protect them from any further pollution, contamination, or destruction at the hands of Big Oil.
  • Halting the export of crude oil by reinstating the export ban. The ban existed for 40 years, and since it was lifted US exports have skyrocketed, as have associated greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Expanding on the June 6th order under the Defense Production Act to spur electric transportation development and create millions of good-paying union jobs.


Oil Leases

Oil leases are required to have a clause for national emergencies 43 USC 1341 under the reservation of lands and rights. Upon recommendations of the Secretary of Defense under a state of war or a national emergency, operations will be suspended under any leases. Since climate change is caused by fossil fuels, this provision should be put in place. 

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, fossil fuels accounted for 74% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and 25% of those emissions came from public lands. Fossil fuels have widespread effects on the environment including air pollution. These hazardous air pollutants will damage crops, forests, and harm wildlife. Those externalities negatively affect the natural environment, food security, and human stability. 

Currently, according to the USDA, in 2020 more than 38 million people including 6.1 million children in the United States live in food insecure households. Also, extreme health issues continuously result from our dependency on fossil fuels including asthma, cancer, and premature deaths that disproportionately affect frontline communities


Reinstating the ban on crude oil exports

Initially led by Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, oil producers began huge lobbying efforts in 2013 to overturn the U.S. ban on exporting crude oil. In 2015, U.S. politicians approved lifting a 40-year ban on crude oil exports as a part of the $1.1 trillion spending bill. This allowed U.S. oil producers to export oil to an already saturated international market after U.S. production nearly doubled from 2009 to 2015. This overturn is associated with an increase in exports from less than half a million barrels per day in 2015 to almost a million barrels per day in 2019 according to a report by U.S Government Accountability Office

According to a report by Greenpeace and Oil Change International, reinstating the ban will reduce global CO2 emissions by as much as 73 to 165 million metric tons each year which is the equivalent of the yearly emissions from 19 to 42 coal-fired power plants. 

Through executive powers and emergency declaration, President Biden could reinstate the crude oil export ban and effectively reduce fossil fuel production when combined with a renewable energy transition. 

POTUS can do even more with an emergency declaration under the Defense Production Act (DPA) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

President Biden’s original climate agenda was built on increasing domestic clean energy manufacturing. On June 6, 2022, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost the domestic production of technologies essential for decarbonization—like solar—and further transitioning off of fossil fuels. The DPA allows the president to direct domestic production of critical materials needed for national defense during wartime. This is the same act that the Biden Administration used for vaccine production, personal protection equipment, and medical supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, Biden’s administration is seriously considering declaring a Climate Emergency according to the US climate envoy John Kerry. As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. must act now if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. If President Biden follows through on his promise to declare a Climate Emergency would help put us back on track to protect the health of our communities by preventing even worse climate disasters. It would also reestablish our country’s legitimacy and commitment to global environmental protection, especially in the lead to COP27.

We will continue to hold President Biden accountable to his climate promises. Sign the petition demanding President Biden declare a Climate Emergency!

By Fatma Elrefaei

Fatma is a a Communications Fellow from the Karel Fellowship program

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.