Climate change is an emergency, regardless of whether you believe it

York Dispatch editorial board
President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media after exiting Air Force One, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Biden is returning from a trip to Somerset, Mass., where he spoke about climate change. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In 2015, President Barack Obama declared a cybersecurity emergency after a series of high-profile hacks involving foreign governments, including one against Sony Pictures in retaliation for the film "The Interview."

Three years later, President Donald Trump cited national security concerns when he ordered emergency tariffs against steel and aluminum imports from every country except Canada and Mexico.

"You don't have steel, you don't have a country," Trump said.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden stopped short of a formal emergency declaration on climate change as he pledged to spend $2.3 billion on programs designed to help communities pay for renewable energy projects.

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“This is an emergency and I will look at it that way,” Biden said.

But ... he didn't actually declare a climate emergency.

According to NASA, 19 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. To put that in perspective, the records have been kept since 1880. (The outlier here is 1998.) Meanwhile, we're losing 427 billion metric tons worth of ice per year from the Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets, contributing to an average global sea level rise of 4 inches since 1993.

Based on NASA data, all of these measures of climate change seem to be accelerating.

And we're all sitting here sweating it out under another heat advisory.

Weather, of course, is not climate.

A run of days with triple-digit heat isn't any more indicative of global climate change than a single blizzard is evidence against it. But the evidence points overwhelmingly to hotter, more turbulent weather in our future.

And the consequences of these larger global trends aren't simply higher utility bills or a few uncomfortably sticky summer days — or even the widespread wildfires that have become a fact of life in America and the rest of the world.

According to a Columbia University study last year, climate change will result in 83 million excess deaths by the year 2100.

The same study, which tracked current trends in mortality and climate, estimated that for every 4,434 tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, we kill one person. For context, that's roughly equivalent to the CO2 emissions 3.5 Americans release in their lifetimes.

There are currently about 330 million Americans.

By this estimate, we'll have the blood of 94 million people on our hands if we don't change our habitual burning of fossil fuels.

Biden has political reasons for his hesitation in declaring a climate emergency. In the history of presidential emergency declarations — including the ones Obama and Trump made for cybersecurity and the steel industry — none have ever been invalidated in the courts. Even Trump's border security declaration was upheld.

But, if recent history is any indication, the current U.S. Supreme Court is happy to reverse longstanding precedents. The justices already largely stripped the Environmental Protection Agency's oversight over carbon emissions.

Let's be absolutely clear, though: Climate change is an emergency.

How many people do we want to kill through inaction?