The resurrection of Build Back Better as the Inflation Reduction Act may cool President Biden’s fervor to declare a climate emergency, but probably not for long. On its face, a legislative approach to taking action on climate change would be politically preferable to doing an end run around Congress via executive order, especially since the Supreme Court drained some regulatory powers on emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency in West Virginia v. EPA. However, the push for a tremendous piece of legislation that doesn’t even state its primary goal in the title also smacks of emergency maneuvering. The use of such emergency powers is only justified if there is an actual emergency, and in the case of climate change, its emergency status is by no means clear.
The Inflation Reduction Act and Climate Change
Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute writing in City Journal, says the Inflation Reduction Act supports some pro-growth environmental policies that could spur more clean power generation without forcing a corresponding decline in existing generation, at least immediately. However, he adds, it also lacks provisions for streamlining permitting procedures required for new grid and transmission infrastructure. Many environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are steadfastly opposed to permitting reform, which one would think they may want to reconsider in a climate emergency, but they seem unwilling to do so.
In all likelihood, pressure for the U.S. and other Western governments to declare a state of climate emergency will continue to build even after the Inflation Reduction Act crosses Biden’s desk and becomes law. One reason is because the law’s provisions will not reduce emissions much more than what is happening anyway with existing technological means. While advocates declare the law would provide for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, this claim is quietly based on a 2005 starting point.
A report from the Rhodium Group, issued shortly before the comically misnamed Inflation Reduction Act Senate deal, stated: “Given these trends and current federal and state policies in force as of June 2022, we find that the US is on track to reduce emissions 24% to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030, absent any additional policy action.” Therefore, it isn’t a stretch to say more action will be demanded. The fact is, the temptations of emergency rule are simply too enticing.
“If you acknowledge that climate change is a long-term problem, you undermine your argument that we need to deal with it with emergency powers,” says journalist and frequent Discourse Magazine contributor Robert Tracinski, who stresses that the powers seem to be the point. “You don’t ask for the powers because there is an emergency. You declare an emergency so you can get the powers.”
He suggests that a slightly less cynical way of looking at the enthusiasm for emergency action on climate change is to appreciate the emotional charge such declarations create. Just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the American people behind a national emergency in 1941, so environmentalists wish to generate similar emotional power in support of their own cause.
What Is an Emergency?
A declaration of emergency or disaster can be an effective way to respond rapidly to a sudden crisis, bypassing procedures intended to produce results more methodically, with oversight that tends to slow things down. It can also quickly free up large amounts of resources and manpower that otherwise would not be available in a timely way.
In a wildfire disaster, firefighters and other first responders are dispatched, volunteers and reserves summoned, equipment mobilized and money allocated with the single goal of defeating the fire. Personal and property rights are all but suspended as authorities force evacuations and go wherever necessary to preserve life and contain and quell the blaze. Land is damaged and structures are destroyed in the creation of firebreaks and paths of access to the fire.
It is no coincidence that firefighting, with its battalions and lines, draws much of its terminology and techniques from warfare, and even vice versa (e.g., “brush fire” wars). War is another emergency situation where a declaration or some similar authorization enables the government to impose extraordinary means to combat an enemy. Whatever its necessity in a given situation, war’s costs are well documented.
With natural disasters and (most) armed conflicts, the threat is clear enough that voting citizens are at least aware of, if they do not necessarily support, emergency response efforts. People may question how effective the response to a particular hurricane was, or a strategy used to wage war. Mistakes are made, pockets are lined, resources and lives are lost, often wastefully. The very nature of emergencies sidelines the agencies and systems put in place to prevent or at least limit such waste. Even supporters may lament that emergency measures were required in the first place owing to lack of forethought.
Moreover, emergencies end. At some point Cincinnatus and George Washington, as the legends have it, put away the extraordinary powers vested in them and retired to private life. When the fire is out or the Aequi and Redcoats are run off, things are supposed to go back to normal. However, the attractions of a state of emergency serve as powerful inducements to retain the powers conferred by a crisis, even to the point of inflating its threat and perpetuating its duration.
As of this writing, the United States has 37 active states of emergency declared by presidential executive order, the earliest of which dates back to the Carter administration. The vast majority of these are sanctions imposed on other countries in support of diplomatic stances. The 1976 National Emergencies Act was supposed to rein in arbitrary presidential power and required Congress to meet every six months to approve the continuation of declared emergencies. It has met for this purpose only once, in February 2021, to vote to terminate President Donald Trump’s declared state of emergency over illegal immigration at the southern border.
Officials, experts and scientists throughout the world commonly and vociferously say wildfires, hurricanes and even wars result from an overarching climate crisis afflicting the planet. While natural disasters and human strife have existed throughout recorded history, advocates say these are being made worse through a modern period of climate change that is exacerbated by human activity. Contrary views exist; however, the threat from so-called anthropogenic climate change is clearly the mainstream opinion in Western governments, institutions, academia and media, even if society at large remains unconvinced.
Putting aside the spittle-flecked arguments over the reality or extent of anthropogenic climate change, it is important to determine the proper way to approach such a problem. There is a very strong impulse, particularly among current leaders in the White House and Congress, to declare a state of emergency and essentially allow the executive to rule by decree. The problem with this approach, over and above its dubious constitutionality, is the attendant wreckage of economies, industries and livelihoods these emergency policies must necessarily incur.
Emergencies happen. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly was a public health crisis. While popular and legislative consensus supported a number of emergency responses, in the light of day some of these actions have been shown to be wasteful and even damaging. Nevertheless, most would agree that some action was required, even if more oversight would have been welcome.
Is climate change such an emergency? Does it require immediate U.S. executive action bypassing Congress and the reallocation of civilization-altering amounts of treasure and resources? The indications say no. Even after the Inflation Reduction Act takes effect, there will be no demonstrable effects on emissions or climate in the U.S.—not to mention in China, India and elsewhere in Asia, where new coal-burning plant projects are going full steam ahead. Even Europe wants to burn more coal, citing the demonstrable emergency of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Earth will not experience a decrease in carbon emissions because of the new U.S. law.
Granting that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and that it should be countered with human action—and not all are willing to grant those assumptions—on what basis can it be described as an emergency? For at least 50 years, some of the most educated, credentialed experts and feted celebrities in the world have predicted impending disaster in 10 years (give or take). Yet no matter how many times the 10-year timer is reset, we never seem to reach the final countdown. Nevertheless, there seems to be no reckoning required for the doomsayers.
If there were truly a climate emergency where the planet’s fate was on a 10-year burning fuse, grid transmission infrastructure and new low-emission power plant construction—particularly nuclear plants—should unquestionably be fast-tracked and greenlit with celerity. Moreover, regulatory barriers to mining strategic minerals for batteries and transmission infrastructure should be lowered immediately.
That is, of course, if a modern, productive—and sustainable—civilization were the end goal of the emergency. This is where climate change activists differ. There are not a few Malthusian voices calling for a diminishment of humanity along the lines prescribed by Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand:
We have wished, we eco-freaks, for a disaster or for a social change to come and bomb us into Stone Age, where we might live like Indians in our valley, with our localism, our appropriate technology, our gardens, our homemade religion-guilt-free at last.
Most people, it seems, do not wish to live this way. In July, the European Union Parliament voted to include nuclear and even natural gas (!) projects as eligible for clean energy loans and government subsidies. It’s very likely that the emergency imposed by the cutoff of Russian oil and gas supplies had at least as much to do with the move as concern for emissions. Prior to Biden taking office, the Democratic Party had included nuclear power in its stated “all of the above” energy policy. However, Biden quickly backed away from this as president. No serious energy program to reduce carbon emissions should exclude nuclear power and even natural gas power generation alongside renewables such as solar and wind. Certainly, it would not if there were truly a climate emergency.
But the evidence indicates that there is no climate emergency. So, there should be no emergency spending on climate change amelioration, with all the disruption and inefficiency that entails. At the same time, a broad coalition of scientists, policymakers and lawmakers could probably be assembled to advance a strong argument for curtailing if not eliminating the emissions most associated with rising temperatures. These goals could be reached in a programmatic way by popularly elected legislators after thorough and reasoned debate supported by true application of the scientific method—unlikely though such a reasonable, constitutional process may be.
Like the old joke about the Holy Roman Empire (it was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire), the Inflation Reduction Act will likely exacerbate inflation while not doing anything useful in the realm of emissions reduction, either. The real emergency, then, is the ruling party’s potential loss of power in the midterm elections. Emergency responses are not particularly suited to complex problems that may (or may not) arise over decades, if not centuries—but the window is closing on a once-in-a-decade opportunity to cram through spending on programs that would not survive scrutiny in a divided legislative and executive government.
In November, if the Democrats lose their ability to write legislation unilaterally in the House, even if they retain the ability to move it forward via reconciliation in the Senate, we can be assured that the Biden White House will be back in emergency declaration mode before the year is out.