Climate Crisis

How Bad Do Things Have to Get for Joe Biden to Declare a Climate Emergency?

The president says he has “practically” called for an emergency. But the Maui wildfires and tropical storm Hilary serve as a reminder that he needs to declare one for real.
A car is submerged in floodwaters as Tropical Storm Hilary moves through Cathedral City California August 20.
A car is submerged in floodwaters as Tropical Storm Hilary moves through Cathedral City, California August 20.Mario Tama/Getty Images

A summer of extreme weather in the United States is coming to a close with a one-two punch of historic disasters: the Maui wildfires, which have displaced thousands, killed more than a hundred, and left more than 800 still missing; and Hilary, the hurricane-turned-tropical storm that is bringing catastrophic flooding to Southern California and the desert southwest. The devastation from both is ongoing, but they carry the same message as the hazardous heat and stinging smoke that filled the skies over the Northeast and Midwest earlier this summer: Climate chaos is here, and urgent action is long overdue.

President Joe Biden has taken a number of steps in the right environmental direction during his first two and a half years in office—including progress on clean energy initiatives. But that's not enough; Biden should formally declare a climate emergency. “I refuse to accept that people choosing between burning alive and jumping into the ocean for hours on end is our new normal,” as Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer told Politico, referring to Hawaii residents who took refuge in the Pacific as fire tore through their community. “This is a crisis and we need to treat it that way.”

Biden—who visits Hawaii Monday amid criticism of his muted response to one of the deadliest blazes in modern American history—said this month that “practically speaking,” he has already declared a climate emergency. “I’ve already done that,” he told the Weather Channel, defending his administration’s response to the “existential threat” of global warming. But “practically” isn’t the same as officially declaring one, which would unlock a greater array of powers to address the issue—including the ability to unilaterally limit drilling and fossil fuels.

Such a move, as Politico noted Monday, could come with political risks for the president in a reelection bid—the potential for higher gas prices, among them—that will have a massive impact on the country’s ability to combat the climate crisis at a critical juncture. (Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, and much of his party deny the scientific consensus on global warming and have stood in the way of key efforts to address the issue.) But failure to urgently respond to the crisis at hand comes with its own cost: “We need the president to scale up his response to the climate crisis…and follow through with bold new actions,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board demanded last week, as the city braced for its first tropical storm in 84-years. “Biden can start by declaring it the emergency that he already knows it to be.”

He’s been under pressure from progressives and others in his party to do so since his inauguration. It’s time, now, for him to fully meet the moment. “The climate crisis is no longer a theoretical discussion,” as Congressman Greg Casar told my colleague Abigail Tracy after staging a “thirst strike” on the Capitol steps earlier this month, in part to call for more significant action on the part of the Biden administration. We “no longer need to talk about this in academic terms.”