In Net Zero Democracy I suggested that in many ways we in the UK do not really enjoy a functioning democracy, in large part because the establishment (including all main political parties) is in general agreement as to how it views the major issues confronting society. That viewpoint isn’t the same as that of a large part of the population, and thus the establishment works to ensure that the wrong-thinking populace may enjoy a facade of democracy, while power remains vested in those who think they know best.
I could discuss that proposition with regard to many important policy areas, but the one that concerns me for current purposes is with regard to climate policy. Here an alarming trend is in evidence, not restricted to the UK, but across the developed world. The trend in question is one for increasing pressure for governments to declare a climate emergency.
Of course many organisations have taken to making such declarations. Wikipedia tells us that climate emergency declarations have been made by many of the devolved jursidictions (Gibraltar Parliament, Isle of Man, Jersey, Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd). The same is true of seventeen English county councils, 136 English District Councils, 28 (or 85% of) London Borough Authorities, thirty English Metropolitan Districts, 41 unitary English authorities, three Northern Ireland local government areas, 22 Scottish local government areas and 24 Welsh local government areas. All of which is largely immaterial, since other than a bit of virtue-signalling, such declarations don’t carry much in the way of meaningful consequences.
So far so pointless. However, at national level, the consequences could be more serious, and could serve to undermine still further such democracy as continues to exist. Numerous national governments have now declared climate emergencies. If you want to keep up to date, Wikipedia is again a good place to start.
Apparently, populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to over 1 billion citizens
At this stage, it still seems as though we are talking about little more than a bit of harmless virtue-signalling, but read the Wikipedia article, and alarm bells should start to sound. It tells us, inter alia:
Once a government makes a declaration, the next step for the declaring government is to set priorities to mitigate climate change, prior to ultimately entering a state of emergency or equivalent.
Aye, there’s the rub. The thing about a state of emergency is that it allows the normal rules of engagement to be set aside. Politicians can take it on themselves to ignore dissenting voices and to bypass normal democratic processes. And this is exactly what is desired by many campaigners, frustrated by what they see as the slow progress to be found in normal functioning democracies. As Wikipedia again tells us:
The term climate emergency has been promoted by climate activists and pro-climate action politicians to add a sense of urgency for responding to a long-term problem.
In the United States things recently came close to taking a very sinister turn. Frustrated by the ongoing opposition of Democrat Senator Manchin of West Virginia to Joe Biden’s Climate Bill (given a near-deadlocked US Senate), campaigners have been calling on president Biden to declare a climate emergency. Had he done so, this would not have been simply yet another case of non-consequential virtue-signalling, for very real consequences could have followed. Perhaps we should be pleased that Senator Manchin’s opposition appears to have crumbled, because with that, calls for the declaration of an emergency have become less strident.
A couple of writers whose views I respect have picked up on the potentially serious consequences of a Biden declaration. First, Brendan O’Neill writing in Spiked:
…if Biden were to declare a climate emergency, it would have disastrous consequences. For democracy, liberty and living standards. Indeed, the pro-emergency lobby openly celebrates the fact that an eco-emergency would allow the president to rise above pesky democracy…
…Politico says a state of emergency would ‘unlock potent tools for Biden’, allowing him to take drastic unilateral measures to cut emissions. Democratic debate be damned – let’s just act.
The whole article is well worth a read, not least for the light it shines on the bizarre reversal of the politics I grew up with. As Mr O’Neill says:
One of the most curious sights of the 21st century is radicals taking to the streets to demand a state of emergency. There was a time, back when politics was less crazy, when leftists and liberals were wary of emergency legislation. If a politician so much as uttered the word ‘emergency’ they’d be readying their placards and practicing their slogans. And with good reason. An ‘emergency’ is a deeply authoritarian affair. It involves suspending the normal political process on the basis that there’s a threat on the horizon that is so massive – whether it be terrorism, war, disease or some political ‘enemy within’ – that it cannot be dealt with by mere democratic means. No, only swiftly enforced brute law will do; only the rescinding of civil liberty will suffice.
Why would anyone actively campaign for such an abnormal and illiberal style of government? And yet here we are, in the 2020s, watching the supposedly right-on line up in their hundreds of thousands to plead with officialdom to put us all under emergency measures.
Bizarre, indeed. But it’s the world we now seem to live in, and it scares me.
For more information about those demanding a US Presidential declaration of a climate emergency, I refer you to US lawyer Francis Menton, writing in his blog, Manhattan Contrarian. Specifically, I refer to his article ‘Get Ready For The 100 Year Long Climate “Emergency”’:
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia -v- EPA on June 30, the bureaucracies in the “climate” space, together with all the environmental activists, have been thrown into a tizzy. The Supreme Court just declared that the bureaucracies have no power to fundamentally transform the use of energy in the economy without a clear direction from Congress, which on the climate issue cannot be found in existing statutes. And it has become clear that no further such statutory direction is likely to emerge from Congress before the mid-term elections in November. After November, changes in the make-up of Congress will probably make further such legislation even less likely, if not completely off the table for years if not decades. So what is a self-respecting climate alarmist to do?
To those over there on the left, the answer seems obvious: Demand declaration of a “climate emergency.” With that declaration, the statutory gap could perhaps be filled by another whole category of laws providing special powers in the event of a declaration of “emergency.”
What would those special powers be? Here I refer to an article in The Revelator by Dan Farber of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley:
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has compiled a helpful list of almost 150 statutes giving the president special powers during emergencies. The list doesn’t map the outer perimeter of presidential powers — there are other laws that give presidents powers to take action on the basis of national security, and the president also has some ill-defined, though not unlimited, powers to take action without explicit congressional authorization. But the list provides a good start, and here are just a few of the possibilities:
- Oil leases are required to have clauses allowing them to be suspended during national emergencies. (43 USC 1341) If climate change is a national emergency caused by fossil fuels, then suspension seems like a logical response.
- The president has emergency powers to respond to industrial shortfalls in national emergencies. (50 USC 4533). This could be used to support expansion of battery or electrical vehicle production. Another provision allows the president to extend loan guarantees to critical industries during national emergencies. (50 USC 4531). This could be used to support renewable energy more generally.
- The secretary of Transportation has broad power to “coordinate transportation” during national emergencies. (49 U.S.C 114). This might allow various restrictions on automobile and truck use to decrease emissions of greenhouse gases.
- The president may invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to deal with “any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States.” (50 USC 1701-1707). That description certainly applies to climate change. According to the Brennan Center, this Act “confers broad authority to regulate financial and other commercial transactions involving designated entities, including the power to impose sanctions on individuals and countries.” Conceivably, these powers could be deployed against companies or countries trafficking in fossil fuels.
To conclude, I can do no better than quote Francis Menton again:
Here’s the problem. There is no sense in which the climate is an “emergency” within the ordinary meaning of that word in the English language. Predictions by climate models of a few degrees of temperature rise over the next century are the opposite of an “emergency.” Indeed, the statutes granting various “emergency” powers to the Executive all deal with the question of time periods too short to give the Congress time to enact legislation appropriate to the situation at hand. That circumstance is the opposite of what we have with the climate.
But if you are on the left, or a climate activist, this situation is just too important to wait for Congressional action that may never come. An “emergency” must be declared, to last for — how long? A hundred years? During which time, the bureaucrats can issue whatever orders they want, and spend whatever funds they want, all in the name of saving the planet. None of which will or can have any effect on the 85% (and growing) of world carbon emissions that come from outside the U.S. and which the U.S. government cannot affect in any way.
I still think of myself as being “on the left”. I can’t speak for Brendan O’Neill, but I suspect that he and his fellow writers at Spiked regard themselves in the same way. I share his bemusement at the alacrity with which many of those on the left now seek to ditch democracy. Are we witnessing the death of democracy?