Could a Future President Declare a Climate Emergency?

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John Schwartz

Hi, everybody! Things have been heating up around here, especially in the ocean. A new study suggests the oceans have been warming more rapidly than scientists previously thought. Zeke Hausfather, an author of the study, told our colleague Kendra Pierre-Louis that 2018 would turn out to be “the warmest year on record for the Earth’s oceans, as 2017 was the warmest year, and 2016 was the warmest year.”

The news about the oceans makes you wonder how high 2018 will rank among the hottest years in recorded history. We’d love to tell you, but we can’t: The government shutdown has stalled that data, and a lot of other important science besides. Kendra has that story, too.

That’s just one of the effects of the shutdown. Coral Davenport wrote about furloughed pollution inspectors at the Environmental Protection Agency who would normally be checking up on chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants and thousands of other industrial sites for pollution violations.

Still, not everything is idle for the Trump administration. It is bringing back at least 40 federal employees to work on plans to sell oil and gas drilling leases off the United States coastline. And the hearing over the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to head the Environmental Protection Agency went on as scheduled.

In California, Pacific Gas and Electric will seek bankruptcy protection over the billions of dollars in liability it faces from two years of deadly wildfires. Climate change is a factor, helping to make wildfires more numerous and more destructive — and making the utility “one of the first major financial casualties from climate change.”

And, if all of that is the sort of news that might have you reaching for a comforting cup of coffee, you guessed it: Climate change (and deforestation) is threatening many wild species of coffee. Somini Sengupta tells us that the loss of diversity means we could be losing options to adapt our morning cup to a changing world.


CreditPhoto Illustration by The New York Times; photo by Jakraphan Churuphant/Shutterstock

John Schwartz

As the impasse continues over President Trump’s demand for a border wall, Mr. Trump and his allies have floated the idea of his declaring a national emergency that they say might allow him to build it without congressional approval.

Mr. Trump has already pulled back somewhat from his earlier threats of an emergency declaration. But the idea alone has caused consternation, and not just among Democrats. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said last week that the precedent of declaring an emergency to build the wall worried him. “We have to be careful about endorsing broad uses of executive power,” he said. “Tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change.

“Hmm,” we thought here at Team Climate. Could a future president who accepts the seriousness of the climate threat declare an emergency to get things done? How would that work?

There are 136 statutory provisions that grant powers to the president under an emergency declaration, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. These laws are very specific in their effects, said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the center’s Liberty and National Security Program.

Whether the laws would allow Mr. Trump to build a wall is questionable; whether they would allow action on climate change is even more so.

Some of the laws do allow the president to act on environmental safeguards and energy production, but “they all cut the other way,” Ms. Goitein said. These are laws that allow the president to temporarily suspend environmental protections, for example, in the case of a national emergency that requires a quick surge in energy production. So, those laws could not be used to tighten environmental protections or to reduce energy production.

“There are no emergency provisions to protect the Earth,” Ms. Goitein said.

What’s more, the meaning of an emergency when invoking these powers is rooted in the idea of things that happen suddenly, without the kind of warning that gives Congress time to act — and one thing that isn’t sudden is knowledge about climate change.

The intention of the provisions, Ms. Goitein said, is not to “get around the law” or to perform an end run around a Congress that disagrees with the president’s wishes.

“We are in a climate emergency,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “But just because you call something an emergency doesn’t mean that it fits under the president’s statutory authority.”

CreditTyler Varsell; pump jack photo by Janie Osborne for The New York Times

By Tik Root

When you turn on the shower, chances are that hot water (eventually) comes out. While we may wonder why it takes so long for the water to warm, that’s about as far as our minds probably wander on the subject. But here’s something to remember: Keeping water hot is one of the most energy-intensive components of our daily lives.

According to the Energy Department, water heating accounts for about 18 percent of a home’s energy consumption. That’s usually second only to home heating (which we covered last month) and cooling. But it often goes overlooked, said Gary Klein, a consultant on hot water efficiency.

For energy-conscious homeowners who have already gone through a standard checklist, “water heating is going to be the biggest one thing that’s left,” Mr. Klein said. “It’s like the next gold mine to go mining in.”

There are a number of places to start, some easier than others.

If you’re building a new home or doing major renovations, Mr. Klein suggests a design where the taps and hot water heater are as close to one another as possible. Another consideration is whether to go with a traditional hot water tank or a tankless system, which is more expensive to install but uses less energy because it heats water only on demand.

High-efficiency appliances also go a long way, Mr. Klein said, mainly because they use less water, thus reducing the need to heat it in the first place.

But there are also simple things that most anyone can do. Switching to low-flow fixtures, for example, reduces the demand for hot water, leading to significant savings.

Another place to look is on the water heater itself, where the temperature is almost always adjustable. If your water is coming out of the tap scalding, the temperature is probably set too high, so go ahead and try inching it down until you feel comfortable. The Energy Department recommends 120 degrees.

Mr. Klein recommends looking into other modifications as well. Demand-activated pumps, for example, can help bring your water up to temperature without wasting water down the drain. Pressure-compensating aerators better regulate the flow from fixtures and can be quite inexpensive.

The technology, he said, is much better than it used to be. “If you tried this stuff some years ago,” he said, “it’s time to try it again.”

Mr. Klein also recommends insulating your hot water pipes. Doing so keeps your unused hot water warmer for longer, meaning less energy is needed to heat it back up.

“Poorly insulated pipes,” Mr. Klein said, “is sort of like having screen doors in submarines.”

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