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If Biden declared a climate emergency tomorrow, 2 things could make or break it

This is not merely symbolism.

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President Joe Biden in office, and the push to put Official Emergency Status on the climate crisis is back on. But unlike a specific disaster, which has a clear beginning, middle, and end, climate change is inherently abstract.

It's not a fast-paced pandemic sweeping the country, killing thousands per day. Climate change is a slow-rolling disaster on a global scale. No one country is going to get the Earth out of this — but as a global superpower with the ability to change other countries' course of action, what America does — or doesn't — do to address climate change matters beyond the United States' own shores.

But declaring Official Emergency Status could make more difference than mere symbolism. The reason why comes down to greater authority for the president, and to a lesser extent, the spending power that comes with the job.

Throughout the last five years, calls to declare an official Climate Emergency have echoed across the globe.Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

“To declare a climate emergency would not only speak to how serious this crisis is, but would also open President Biden up to being able to use greater executive authority to pass the level of policy that we ultimately need.”

Those are the words of Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, an American activist group which for years has called for an official proclamation of a national climate emergency.

The Sunrise Movement has occupied city halls and State Houses across the United States. On one occasion the group even pretended to be the City of Denver, sending a fake “letter” from the city's mayor office calling for a climate emergency proclamation as a way to draw attention to their cause. With Biden in charge, there's hope that the Sunrise Movement and other activists like them, might get their way.

“You can’t force a company making baby food to start making solar cells.”

Why Official Emergency Status?

The reason why Sunrise and others want this is because declaring the climate crisis a federal emergency would mean a multi-pronged effort from different government agencies — and a lot of cash.

David Kaufman, a former Associate Administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), tells Inverse the agency's spending power could help convince communities to make smarter building decisions. They might also feel compelled to focus on building infrastructure that's more resilient to devastating weather and climate events — hurricanes, drought, wildfire — driven by climate change.

FEMA is often called in after disasters, but can also be used before they even occur.Cat Gennaro/Moment/Getty Images

Here’s the background — Most people associate FEMA with reactions to individual disasters, like setting up temporary shelters after Hurricane Sandy, or providing relief to Californians who lost their homes in wildfires. But it’s not all the agency does. In November 2020, for example, FEMA paid for permanent housing for victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria who had lost their homes.

FEMA also has a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which supports “hazard mitigation projects.” These range from making sure electrical poles in Nebraska can survive winter storms to building biomass plants in California to convert forest waste into green energy.

FEMA responds to disasters across the United States and Puerto Rico.AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

Kaufman sees “broad potential” for climate change efforts. Currently, the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program receives 6 percent of federal post-disaster grant funding. While Kaufman cautions the program has “extensive regulatory work” surrounding it, raising that number could increase the number of climate mitigation projects around the country.

Aside from FEMA, Biden can also use the Defense Production Act of 1950. The Act has got a lot of press during the Covid-19 pandemic, and Biden has stated that masks, testing kits, and vaccine materials will all be made under the Act. But the pandemic is not the only emergency it could help tackle.

Defense Production Act for climate change — Kaufman points to Title 7 of the Defense Production Act as a potential legal lever which may be critical in fighting climate change. Title 7 establishes what are known as “voluntary agreements,” which are essentially (not very voluntary) agreements between the government and private companies to produce certain products or services to mitigate or support a specific emergency effort.

“FEMA can influence how we rebuild once something's been destroyed by disaster. FEMA can bribe you to build smarter through mitigation programs.”

Kaufman says these “could be potentially used” to support climate-change mitigation efforts, whether that be churning out solar panels, electric cars, or other strategies.

“There are authorities in D.P.A. that do allow the government to force a company to produce something,” Kaufman says.

As mighty as the Act sounds, there are limits to its powers. Whatever the government wants a company to build, for example, has to be related to what it’s already producing.

“You can’t force a company making baby food to start making solar cells,” Kaufman says.

From a legal standpoint, the line of thinking that would enable the Biden Administration to repurpose a Mercedes plant in Alabama making SUVs to make solar panels instead is in a “grey” zone, Kaufman says.

Could a Ford plant be used to make solar panels? It's a grey line.JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

While the president “could make Ford make tanks,” according to Kaufman, that’s because the end product would be similar enough to Ford's original.

“Where the line is, though, is not particularly clear,” he says.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Biden Administration as to which route the government chooses to take. And there is only so much the federal government can do, Kaufman warns.

“FEMA can influence how we rebuild once something's been destroyed by disaster. FEMA can bribe you to build smarter through mitigation programs,” he says. (Kaufman does not mean an actual bribe here, but was rather just pointing out how economic incentives can be a powerful driver for change.) But it can't force anyone to do anything.

Beyond federal efforts, states will also need to step up to tackle more local issues that a federal agency might miss. America’s infrastructure looks dismal, so whatever action the government does take, it needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

"We are missing a set of policy levers and incentives to affect that future landscape,” Kaufman says.