“How are you doing?” I asked Congressman Earl Blumenauer when I got him on the phone. “Other than the fact,” the Oregon Democrat replied, “that the world is burning up and falling apart?”
As of this writing, Hawaii is still surveying the damage from some of the deadliest wildfires in modern American history; a large swath of the US is baking under extreme heat; California and parts of the southwest are recovering from a tropical storm; and Florida is now bracing for yet another hurricane. The dangers of climate change have long been clear. But the summer of 2023, with its smoke-filled skies and a July that checked in as Earth’s hottest month on record, made that reality impossible for Americans to ignore—and renewed calls for President Joe Biden to formally declare a climate emergency.
Blumenauer, a Portland progressive, has been one of the loudest voices urging the move, and has introduced measures to push the president to finally declare a formal climate emergency. Biden has thus far resisted those calls. But in an interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Blumenauer told me that the escalating crisis will soon leave the administration with no choice. “It just is stunning,” the representative said. “If you were writing a script for a guide to declare a climate emergency, I think the last two or three months could not be more compelling—and it’s not fiction.”
Vanity Fair: What makes declaring a climate emergency such an important and necessary move?
Earl Blumenauer: We are facing unprecedented, overlapping crises. And we need to have all our available tools. We need to be able to give the president and the federal government tools to deal with how we assist climate-vulnerable communities, which are growing by leaps and bounds as the vulnerability becomes evermore acute. I don’t doubt the president’s commitment to the climate. But this will give him tools to help communities prepare for and respond to this reality. It will unlock powers and federal resources to help them respond to this new reality. This is something that we’ve watched for the last several years become worse. What’s happening in terms of the oceans, the forest—the notion of what our communities are being subjected to would be unfathomable, even a year or two ago, and it continues to get worse. I think this is not just symbolic.
What did you make of President Biden saying a couple of weeks ago that he “practically” declared an emergency already?
I love it. Let’s finish the job. He teed it up. And now this is what is necessary to have all of those tools at his disposal, and he doesn’t have to dance around on some of these things. This will be a clear map.
Why do you think that he hasn't declared one formally yet?
It would raise expectations, which I understand. Which is why I want him to do that. I don’t understate the practical problem he’s got, with a closely-divided Congress. There’s a practical reality with one or two Democrats and uniform Republican opposition—although it is fascinating that the Republicans, for example, that were against the Inflation Reduction Act are there for the groundbreaking successes. So I think the reality is setting in. But this is a way for the president to take it up a notch. I mean, I’ve been dealing with shortcomings with FEMA: I did not realize, until I made a deeper dive a year and a half ago, that FEMA didn’t have authority for extreme heat; there are gaps in terms of what agencies can do. This is a way to signal the intent of being able to put it on an emergency basis.
What kind of response have you gotten from the White House in response to your resolutions and in the calls for this emergency?
Well, in the past, it’s been polite interest—and that it wasn’t quite right, and that they have competing demands. But [the devastation] is unbelievable. As somebody who’s been pretty climate savvy, I have been deeply concerned. But this exceeds my worst fear for the intermediate term. I’ve had no doubt that this is where we’re going. But it’s happened much more rapidly and much more intensely. And I think that there’s an opportunity here, if the president makes that declaration, to capitalize on it. It’ll make his job easier, not harder.
I did want to ask about the “competing concerns.” The Supreme Court has tied the administration’s hands on some climate initiatives. We’re also heading into an election year that could determine how the US addresses—or does not address—climate change at a really critical window for reversing this or mitigating it. What do you see as the practical limitations or the political risks that the president has to maneuver, and how do you navigate those?
That’s where the declaration of the climate emergency comes in, because it does unlock broader powers—and makes it less likely that they will be torpedoed by the Supreme Court or get bogged down in understandable legislative morass. I think giving him that clarity of purpose, enhanced powers, will give him what he needs to be able to contend with these come competing, overlapping, accelerating challenges. I don’t know what the challenge is going to be next month. But I’ll bet it’s going to be something that we are going to need more resources for, more tools—and there will be greater urgency. The president has an unimaginable job—the competing interests, a war in Ukraine, a challenge with China, these are existential threats. But having a climate emergency declaration will help him meet these impossible demands, because they’ve never been more important, they’ve never been more compelling, they’ve never been more complex.
I don’t want to use the word “hopeful,” but just what is your sense of how the public pressure is going to build as these things just become more and more in-your-face and difficult to overlook?
I think that’s the reality for the president. It is going to build. I appreciate you referencing the politics. I think it should not be bound up in politics. But I think that emergency speaks to reinforcing some of the political dynamic for the president, because as you know, some of his supporters have been disappointed, to be charitable. People for whom this disaster has been building and building, and who can’t fathom why the federal government is not pulling out all the stops—I think this helps cut through that. I think it simplifies things for the president. And, as I said, we’re seeing every week, there’s some new metric about extreme heat, about what’s happening with the oceans, with fire, smoke, air quality—it is truly beyond my comprehension, in terms of how these overlapping crises are descending with greater frequency and greater intensity. I think it is something that is not going to be possible to ignore.
There’s still people who deny climate change, who think it’s a hoax. But we’re talking about a minority of the population, and I think the group we need to focus on are those who are persuadable, the folks in the middle, the folks who didn’t believe that it would ever get to be this bad. I think there is a mindset developing that will reward government action. There are people who are depending on government action as never before. Look no further than what’s happening with Hawaii. I think the number of people who care about this is growing. And I think the people who are climate deniers or who feel that there’s no role for the federal government are people who haven’t had their community catch fire—and it’s just a matter of time before that circle of need expands.