The U.S. Military Already Sees Climate Change as an Emergency

The U.S. Military Already Sees Climate Change as an Emergency
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Chad Freese displays a solar-powered drone during an exhibition of green energy technology in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Dec. 7, 2016 (AP photo by Gregory Bull).

The terrifying and heartbreaking reports from Maui, where wildfires raging through residential neighborhoods killed over 80 people last week, underscores a summer of worldwide climate disasters that are only increasing in intensity. Against this background, U.S. President Joe Biden is facing renewed calls to declare a climate emergency but has been hedging on whether to do so for political reasons. The Biden administration has already declared climate change a national security priority. It is now overlooking an untapped source of political capital that would ease the declaration of a climate emergency: the authority of the U.S. armed forces and its messenger effects with the Republican Party’s electoral base.

The declaration of a national emergency is of course justified and would unlock significant legal powers, including the ability to use three different sets of statutory law to do things like restrict crude oil exports, limit trade and investment in fossil fuels, and pump emergency aid into renewables and sustainable communities. Arguments against doing so center on whether such powers would stand legal scrutiny. Indeed, Republicans are already mobilizing to block attempts to use them in those specific ways. For these reasons, Michael Gerrard, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, said the declaration of an emergency would be more a “combination megaphone and crowbar” than a magic wand.

But megaphones and crowbars are arguably the very things needed to deal with the burgeoning climate crisis. If anything, Biden should be considering the declaration of a national emergency as part of a wider strategy to truly treat climate change as a national security threat—one that calls for more far-reaching policies involving civic sacrifice and designed to bring the nation together in the same way as if it was at war. This public communication rationale, and not the legal powers a national emergency unlocks, is one of the best reasons to declare one.

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