My emergency is realer than yours.
That’s the line coming from prominent Democrats, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, as lawmakers stake out positions on the moment’s defining issues: migration and climate change. President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border has provoked predictable backlash from liberals. Now Democrats are trying to flip the conversation, calling on Congress and the next president to tackle the "real emergency" facing the nation: climate change.
Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota summed up this view in a recent tweet: “Our next President should declare a #NationalEmergency on day 1 to address the existential threat to all life on the planet posed by Climate Change.” That idea seems to be taking off: Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer plans to put a resolution before Congress declaring the climate crisis a national emergency.
Such calls are understandable, but “very disturbing,” according to experts. The planet is on track to blow past the ambitious 1.5 degree Celsius warming target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement by 2040, thanks largely to fossil-fueled economic growth. Storms, droughts, floods and other disasters are growing more deadly as a result, and they’re mostly affecting the poor and disempowered.
“If there’s an emergency, you create a set of security rules that are supposed to suppress politics,” Eric Schewe, an expert on authoritarian regimes, told The Outline. The history of such emergencies shows that they result in the expansion of repressive state power, short-circuiting political debate in favor of urgent, often militarized action to protect narrowly national interests, permitting governments to selfishly marginalize affected people even further.
What if ordinary people, not corporations on the hunt for profit, used the nation’s resources to produce the things people need?
As Alex Gourevitch wrote for N + 1 in 2009, an environmental state of emergency would entail "the suspension of politics — there is no political choice, no constituencies to balance, nothing to deliberate. There is no free activity, just do or die.” And a politics of “do or die” is bad for ordinary people. The U.S. has operated under one state of emergency or another since 1979. In that time, military power has increased, corporations have posted record profits, and working people have lost wealth and power.
While global warming's many horrors — rising seas, crippling drought, species loss — sound apocalyptic, they are actually existential threats that are as systemic as they are urgent. Climate change is an intensification of inequalities in the present, a blow to the world’s poor delivered by a growth-based economic system that depends on fossil fuels for its survival.
“The broader concern about emergency framing of climate change is whether it’s even appropriate way of thinking about what climate change is,” Mike Hulme, a professor of human geography at the University of Cambridge, told The Outline. “It presents climate change as external threat or enemy to be conquered,” when in fact “there’s no identifiable external enemy here; it’s not something that can be conquered or defeated through that kind of marshalling of national resources.”
The idea that climate change represents a national emergency is not new, however. The U.S. Department of Defense has maintained for over a decade that planetary warming poses a risk to national security interests, like military bases. Environmentalists, too, have entertained the idea. James Lovelock, who first proposed the “gaia hypothesis,” wrote in 2009 that climate change “may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival emergency.” Reading Lovelock, it’s not hard to imagine climate change becoming the ultimate national emergency (after all, what’s more urgent than impending extinction), authorizing a curtailment of democratic politics on a scale not even the War on Terror achieved.
Instead of proactive long-term measures to cut planet-warming emissions — like stopping oil drilling or restricting car use — a government equipped with “emergency” powers would more likely target what it sees as immediate, tangible “threats.” One such example might be shooting aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the climate, according to Hulme, who has shown that geoengineering proposals tend to be linked to emergency rhetoric. Yet such projects are not only dangerous; they also give fossil fuel companies permission to keep drilling as the world burns, as Kate Aronoff has reported.
The Pentagon has long viewed climate change as a "threat multiplier," partly because extreme weather will cause people to migrate from the Global South, including areas threatened by extreme weather, rising seas, and climate-related food instability, toward Europe and North America. Even good-faith efforts to link Syrian migration to global warming have provoked violent backlash against “climate migrants” in Europe. Right-wing populism is spreading across the globe, and much of its power derives from the ability of leaders to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria. Climate emergency might prompt lawmakers to further militarize national borders. And in an increasingly populist political climate, the kinds of emergency responses likely to gain traction in the long-term are those that ignite the right's xenophobic fears.
Indeed, given that the American right seems to be quietly coming around to the reality of climate change (despite some high-profile acts of denial), “national emergency” rhetoric and policy could easily become a conservative strategy for dealing with climate change by building “big, beautiful walls” to exclude various Others from America’s relative stability. Meanwhile, the wealthy in the U.S. and around the globe will continue to erect seawalls around their coastal villas and hire private firefighters to protect their Malibu mansions. The real tragedy of treating climate change as an emergency, rather than an uneven distribution of physical and social harm, is that it would worsen the inequality that brought us to this point in the first place.
The politics of “do or die” is bad for ordinary people.
Refusing a national emergency logic is not a call to "do nothing;" it is an insistence that climate change demands the resuscitation of democratic politics, not its suspension, according to Schewe. It means rethinking political action on the basis of popular mobilization, not using and then defending the state's most repressive tools.
That’s why a proposal like the Green New Deal, introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markee, is so powerful. It acknowledges that, as the IPCC’s 2018 report states, addressing climate change will require a “complete transformation” in how we use energy. But it doesn’t pursue that transformation through reactive, short-term, or militarized measures to protect U.S. security interests. Instead, it puts the interests of working people first. It tackles the persistent inequalities of a warmer world — local pollution, gentrification, worsening health, systemic unemployment — and proposes a long-term reorganization of the U.S. economy on the principles of decarbonization and democratic control.
Instead of foreclosing the future, the Green New Deal suggests we can reshape the future, and it entertains a question not asked since Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the original New Deal in the 1930s: What if ordinary people, not corporations on the hunt for profit, used the nation’s resources to produce the things people need?
Even in best case scenarios — namely, planetary warming levelling off at 1.5 degrees Celsius — the effects of that warming will shape human societies long into the future. At what point would a climate emergency be finished? Probably never.
“It’s much easier to enter into an emergency than to end one,” Hulme said. “At what point is the emergency finished? If you’re going to declare an emergency that means you have committed yourself indefinitely to a future of emergency life, and it opens up the suspension of certain norms and democratic protocols.”