In just five months, Russia’s war on Ukraine has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and ruptured global geopolitics and economics. It is marking science, too. The heaviest impacts are in Ukraine, where researchers have seen their institutions bombed and are facing upheaval and threats to their livelihoods. In Russia, scientists are contending with boycotts and sanctions in response to their country’s actions. More widely, the crisis has created economic and political rifts that have already affected research in physics, space, climate science, food security and energy. A prolonged conflict could foment a significant realignment of scientific-collaboration patterns.
On July 20, 2022, President Joe Biden traveled to a former coal-burning power plant in Massachusetts that is being converted into a manufacturing site for offshore wind power equipment. Biden announced millions of dollars in funding for climate change measures, including upgrading infrastructure, weatherizing buildings and installing cooling in homes. He also touted job growth from clean energy production and pledged to use all of his executive power to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
According to White House officials, an emergency declaration remains an option. As a legal scholar who has analyzed the limits of presidential power, I believe that declaring climate change to be a national emergency could have benefits, but also poses risks.
Taking that route sets an important precedent. If presidents increasingly make free use of emergency powers to achieve policy goals, this approach could become the new normal – with a serious potential for abuse of power and ill-considered decisions.
Like Trump, Biden might use the power to divert military construction funds to other projects, such as renewable energy projects for military bases. Biden could also use trade measures – for example, restricting imports from countries with high carbon emissions, or perhaps imposing a carbon fee on goods from those countries to level the playing field.
After declaring an emergency, Biden could provide loan guarantees to critical industries in order to help finance goals such as expanding renewable energy production. Oil and gas leases on federal lands and in federal waters contain clauses that allow the Interior Department to suspend them during national emergencies, though that seems unlikely in the immediate future given current gas prices.
Declaring a national emergency would also enable the president to limit oil exports to other countries – although this also appears unlikely given the war in Ukraine, which has increased European reliance on U.S. oil. Biden also could limit U.S. financing for foreign coal projects.
Would it be legal?
Emergency powers are only available assuming climate change qualifies as an emergency. The law empowering presidents to declare national emergencies doesn’t define the term.
To date, courts have never overturned a presidential emergency declaration, and a climate emergency would probably not be an exception. Legal challenges to Trump’s border security declaration failed.
However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA adds a wild card to the legal analysis. The court ruled that certain actions are so important that they require extra clear authority from Congress. How the Court would apply this doctrine in the context of the National Emergencies Act remains unclear.
Frustration with gridlock
Emergency actions can sometimes shortcut bureaucratic procedures and reduce the potential for litigation, compared to the normal cumbersome regulatory process. That makes them faster and more decisive. They also place responsibility squarely on the president, which increases political accountability. There’s no question of who to blame if you don’t like the border wall – or emergency climate actions.
Unlike legislation, an emergency action does not have to move through Congress. And compared with most federal regulations, there is less requirement for transparency or public comment, and less room for judicial oversight.
In addition, once an emergency is declared, civil libertarians fear that a president could use emergency powers in laws that aren’t even related to that emergency. “Even if the crisis at hand is, say, a nationwide crop blight, the president may activate the law that allows the secretary of transportation to requisition any privately owned vessel at sea,” wrote Elizabeth Goiten, director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.
Legislating is difficult and time-consuming. It requires the agreement of both houses of an increasingly polarized Congress. The filibuster rule requires 60 votes in the Senate for most legislation, and right now the Democrats don’t seem to be able to muster even the 50 votes they would need to take advantage of the “reconciliation” exception to this requirement.
But there are also real dangers to invoking emergency powers. Normalizing their use could make these expanded presidential powers hard to limit.
Congress can nullify emergency declarations by passing a resolution of disapproval, but this has proved ineffective in practice. For instance, despite bipartisan support, Congress failed to muster veto-proof margins for two resolutions overturning Trump’s border emergency, which the administration used to divert billions of dollars to wall construction.
As Justice Robert Jackson wrote in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer – a famous 1952 Supreme Court decision in which the court held that President Harry Truman did not have the constitutional authority to nationalize the U.S. steel industry during the Korean War – emergency powers “afford a ready pretext for usurpation,” and the potential for using those powers “can tend to kindle emergencies” to justify their use.
Unlike some observers, I still see room for making real progress through the normal regulatory process. In my view, it’s not time yet for Biden to break the glass and pull the red emergency lever.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on March 9, 2020.
As the world faces a growing list of climate disasters, from unprecedented summer wildfires in Alaska to record-breaking heat waves in Asia, congressional negotiations on climate action continue to sputter. Amidst this landscape, the U.S. Department of Energy is convening a Carbon Negative Shot Summit this week on climate solutions. The summit is not focused on stopping climate pollution, which is essential to limit the devastation of climate change, but on another growing pillar of climate action: managing the massive amount of pollution that humans have already lodged in our atmosphere. Removing and managing carbon dioxide (CO2) is already happening in tandem with reducing climate pollution, but to reach gigaton-scale carbon management that can make a meaningful dent in U.S. and global climate targets, we need the innovation and ingenuity of startups.
Now in its 13th year, the Audubon Photography Awards are a celebration of bird photography. Arranged by the National Audubon Society, an organization whose mission is to protect birds and their environment, the contest had 2,500 entries from across the United States and Canada. This year’s grand prize went to Jack Zhi for his image of two raptors in flight.
There’s a lot riding on tests underway at Morton Arboretum, where scientists are analyzing samples taken from an oak that may or may not be the sole survivor of a presumed extinct species, a species whose existence has been the subject of debate almost from the moment it was discovered.
Sipping a coffee on your way to work is a ritual most people take for granted without thinking about how the delicious coffee beans reached their cup. You probably know that coffee comes from tropical regions. But what is less well known is that it is the product of an incredible partnership between the birds and the bees.
A recent study researched how birds helped control pests and how bees helped pollinate coffee farms. The research showed how working with wildlife can help farmers make more money. But it is just one example of the benefits nature gives us that we take for granted.
Heat waves are becoming supercharged as the climate changes – lasting longer, becoming more frequent and getting just plain hotter. One question a lot of people are asking is: “When will it get too hot for normal daily activity as we know it, even for young, healthy adults?”
The answer goes beyond the temperature you see on the thermometer. It’s also about humidity. Ourresearch shows the combination of the two can get dangerous faster than scientists previously believed.
Scientists and other observers have become alarmed about the increasing frequency of extreme heat paired with high humidity, measured as “wet-bulb temperature.” During the heat waves that overtook South Asia in May and June 2022, Jacobabad, Pakistan, recorded a maximum wet-bulb temperature of 33.6 C (92.5 F) and Delhi topped that – close to the theorized upper limit of human adaptability to humid heat.
People often point to a study published in 2010 that estimated that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 C – equal to 95 F at 100% humidity, or 115 F at 50% humidity – would be the upper limit of safety, beyond which the human body can no longer cool itself by evaporating sweat from the surface of the body to maintain a stable body core temperature.
It was not until recently that this limit was tested on humans in laboratory settings. The results of these tests show an even greater cause for concern.
These experiments provide insight into which combinations of temperature and humidity begin to become harmful for even the healthiest humans.
Each participant swallowed a small telemetry pill, which monitored their deep body or core temperature. They then sat in an environmental chamber, moving just enough to simulate the minimal activities of daily living, such as cooking and eating. Researchers slowly increased either the temperature in the chamber or the humidity and monitored when the subject’s core temperature started to rise.
That combination of temperature and humidity whereby the person’s core temperature starts to rise is called the “critical environmental limit.” Below those limits, the body is able to maintain a relatively stable core temperature over time. Above those limits, core temperature rises continuously and risk of heat-related illnesses with prolonged exposures is increased.
When the body overheats, the heart has to work harder to pump blood flow to the skin to dissipate the heat, and when you’re also sweating, that decreases body fluids. In the direst case, prolonged exposure can result in heat stroke, a life-threatening problem that requires immediate and rapid cooling and medical treatment.
Our studies on young healthy men and women show that this upper environmental limit is even lower than the theorized 35 C. It’s more like a wet-bulb temperature of 31 C (88 F). That would equal 31 C at 100% humidity or 38 C (100 F) at 60% humidity.
Dry vs. humid environments
Current heat waves around the globe are approaching, if not exceeding, these limits.
In hot, dry environments the critical environmental limits aren’t defined by wet-bulb temperatures, because almost all the sweat the body produces evaporates, which cools the body. However, the amount humans can sweat is limited, and we also gain more heat from the higher air temperatures.
Keep in mind that these cutoffs are based solely on keeping your body temperature from rising excessively. Even lower temperatures and humidity can place stress on the heart and other body systems. And while eclipsing these limits does not necessarily present a worst-case scenario, prolonged exposure may become dire for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
Our experimental focus has now turned to testing older men and women, since even healthy aging makes people less heat tolerant. Adding on the increased prevalence of heart disease, respiratory problems and other health problems, as well as certain medications, can put them at even higher risk of harm. People over the age of 65 comprise some 80%-90% of heat wave casualties.
How to stay safe
Staying well hydrated and seeking areas in which to cool down – even for short periods – are important in high heat.
While more cities in the United States are expanding cooling centers to help people escape the heat, there will still be many people who will experience these dangerous conditions with no way to cool themselves.
Even those with access to air conditioning might not turn it on because of the high cost of energy – a common occurrence in Phoenix, Arizona – or because of large-scale power outages during heat waves or wildfires, as is becoming more common in the western U.S.
A recent study focusing on heat stress in Africa found that future climates will not be conducive to the use of even low-cost cooling systems such as “swamp coolers” as the tropical and coastal parts of Africa become more humid. These devices, which require far less energy than air conditioners, use a fan to recirculate the air across a cool, wet pad to lower the air temperature, but they become ineffective at high wet-bulb temperatures above 21 C (70 F).
All told, the evidence continues to mount that climate change is not just a problem for the future. It is one that humanity is currently facing and must tackle head-on.
Academics from the Universities of Oxford and Cardiff are working alongside CarbonMeta Technologies to turn plastic waste into clean hydrogen fuel and high-value carbon nanomaterials.
Using ‘microwave catalysis’ technology – custom-designed microwave machines – from the University of Oxford, CarbonMeta hopes to yield ‘high value products for industry’ – graphite (600 GBP per tonne), hydrogen (3,500 GBP per tonne), graphene (100,000 GBP per tonne), and carbon nanotubes (100,000 GBP per tonne).