Less than a month after the Supreme Court's decision in West Virginia v. EPA, the White House is reportedly contemplating declaration of a "national climate emergency." On July 20, at a former coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts, President Biden said, "Climate change is an emergency. And in the coming weeks I'm going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal, official government actions for the appropriate proclamations, executive orders and regulatory power that the president possesses." Even if this is only a trial balloon to appeal to progressives in an election year, it is troubling on multiple levels.
The administration would be acting without legislative authority to take what is fundamentally legislative action. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, pressure began mounting on Biden to declare an emergency only after Senator Joe Manchin announced his opposition to a suite of climate regulations. And as the Supreme Court has noted, the separation of powers tends to forbid the executive branch to address broad and transformational issues on its own.
That aside, it's unclear how much of an impact the policies empowered by an executive declaration would make on climate change. Biden has already invoked emergency powers to remove tariffs on solar panels and to subsidize domestic manufacturing of renewable technologies. Any additional limits on U.S. fossil fuel production—or mandated transitions to wind and solar energy as well as electric vehicles—would have a marginal effect on the 11 percent share of greenhouse gas emissions that the U.S. contributes globally.
But the negative effects of such policies during the emergency timeframe would almost certainly outweigh any purported benefits. They would likely make energy more expensive, spur inflation, and even confound foreign policy—we are now negotiating to purchase oil from countries with interests hostile to the U.S., creating new vulnerability to energy blackmail. The questionable economics of wind turbine farms, the limited working time of solar power, and the challenges of backup are rarely discussed. Accelerating the transition to renewable energy has already introduced unreliability into our power grid, as we have seen in California and Texas (as well as in Ghana, where that nation's entire economy has suffered from the embrace of unreliable renewables). Relying on electric vehicles involves huge subsidies and conveniently ignores the environmental costs of producing batteries and the significant costs of the needed infrastructure for charging.
There's an old saying that desperate people do desperate things. When those people are politicians facing an election in which their party is likely to lose by a landslide, declaring some sort of emergency requiring drastic action might seem like a good idea. But it's just bad piled on bad.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.