The Curious Backstory of the 'Climate Emergency'
Joe should declare one now; Hillary would have in 2017
Jeff Stein of the Washington Post had a genuine scoop yesterday—President Biden, stung by Joe Manchin’s brushoff of climate legislation, was weighing whether to declare a “climate emergency.”
He should, of course—it’s hard to think of what else to call it when the UK, with the oldest temperature records on earth, smashes its old all-time heat mark by nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit, as grasslands and forests near London burst into flames. Much of the U.S. is wilting as one of the hottest springs and summers in history burns on.
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But it’s impossible to predict if he actually will: Biden’s ability to postpone decisions has become the stuff of Washington legend. In any event, this one has actually been postponed five years already.
In 2016, Bernie asked me to sit on the 15-member Democratic platform writing committee, my only experience with bigtime party politics. After a series of hearings, we voted on a number of possible planks—the ones I suggested were voted down by 7-6 margins. But in an effort to head off trouble at the convention and because they did in fact care about climate change, the Clinton team eventually agreed to a number of forward-looking proposals that we suggested. One of them—suggested by activists like Margaret Klein Salamon and Russell Greene—was for a climate emergency declaration. In the end, everyone on the platform committee agreed that President Hillary Clinton would convene a meeting in Washington to help America take the lead in combating the “climate emergency.” To be precise
In the first 100 days of the next administration, the President
will convene a summit of the world’s best engineers, climate scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities to chart a course to solve the climate crisis.
All well and good—and the result of a lot of hard work. But then, a few days before the convention actually met, I got a panicked call from Greene: he’d just seen a printed copy of the party platform, and that part was missing. I didn’t believe it, but upon quick checks it turned out to be true—a somewhat abashed platform functionary explained that they’d “edited” the document so it wouldn’t have so many specifics. This was dumb on two counts: one, there was a climate emergency we needed to solve, and two, we’d gone through the whole platform, line by line, on live tv. Obviously people would notice, and use it to spread the insidious idea that team Clinton was welshing on deals with team Sanders, which is precisely the message that did not need to be getting out: the convention was going to be tense enough as it was. And the goal now was to beat Trump.
After a few hours of back and forth, everyone recognized the deletion as the mistake it was, and the original language was put back in the official platform distributed online. But if you happened to have been a delegate and saved the copy that was put on your seat at the convention hall, I believe it’s missing the passage cited above.
In any event, it all became moot—we failed to get Hillary across the finish line, and Trump declared climate not an emergency but a hoax. And then by the next go-round—thanks largely to the incredible organizing of the Sunrise Movement—the issue was even more salient for Democratic voters, and instead of a pledge for a meeting we got Build Back Better, with a lot of solid plans of the sort that presumably would have emerged from that 2017 session in Washington. But Prime Minister Manchin blocked all that, and now we’re left with nothing.
Except the promise of that climate emergency declaration—and, hopefully, the set of measures that could accompany it. (A good list from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse can be found here).
The point is, there’s nothing radical about a declaration of a climate emergency. President Hillary Clinton was going to do it, and President Joe Biden should do it now.
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