Progressive heavyweights push ‘climate emergency’ declaration in Congress

Like the Green New Deal, however, the move is largely symbolic without legislative action.

US Senator Bernie Sanders (L), Independent of Vermont, speaks alongside Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R), Democrat of New York, during a press conference. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
US Senator Bernie Sanders (L), Independent of Vermont, speaks alongside Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R), Democrat of New York, during a press conference. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Progressive heavyweights are pushing a “climate emergency” declaration in Congress as they work to keep activist momentum going into the 2020 election, where the issue is set to play a pivotal role.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a 2020 presidential contender, joined forces on Tuesday with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), to roll out a joint resolution in both chambers of Congress declaring climate change an “official emergency.” That step is one activists have been calling for and mirrors similar efforts in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as cities like New York.

“All of us know there are many, many challenges facing this country, but at the top of the list must be the existential threat to our planet in terms of the damage that climate change is doing and will do,” said Sanders on a call with reporters announcing the resolution.

The resolution’s text declares that climate change has sparked a crisis demanding a “massive-scale mobilization” to head off its worst effects. Among other statistics, the five-page document notes that the past four years were the hottest on record and that concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased 40% since preindustrial times. The resolution moreover points to the uptick and exacerbation of disasters like floods and wildfires across the country, a trend climate scientists have linked to warming temperatures. Issues like concerns over public health consequences and outsized risks posed to frontline communities are also referenced.


Climate change, the resolution asserts, “holds grave and immediate consequences not just for the population of the United States…but for communities across the world[.]”

As to what steps would be taken to rectify the emergency, the three lawmakers largely pointed to rapidly moving to achieve net-zero emissions and overhauling elements like U.S. transportation. In a notable moment, Sanders also singled out the fossil fuel industry, indicating that climate liability lawsuits could be a possibility, something Ocasio-Cortez echoed, calling them a “fascinating tool.”

The process of suing companies like ExxonMobil for knowingly contributing to global warming for decades has met with mixed success in the courts. But presidential contender Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) told ThinkProgress that they would be a key component of his overarching climate plan, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has similarly implied a future administration of his might consider that option.

The lawmakers on Tuesday said that the climate emergency resolution would be introduced this week in the House and likely next week in the Senate. It is unclear when the resolution might see a vote.

More than 700 governments in 16 countries have declared climate emergencies, but they are overwhelmingly symbolic moves. Tuesday’s resolution largely feeds into the also non-binding Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). That blueprint calls for a rapid national mobilization over the course of a decade, all while ensuring mass job creation and pushing forward other principles, like access to education and health care.


While the Green New Deal has 94 cosponsors in the House, it has struggled to gain similar traction in the GOP-held Senate. Moreover, no sweeping climate legislation is likely to receive backing from the White House. But both the Green New Deal and the climate emergency declaration are part of a larger effort to rally climate advocates, at a time when Americans are increasingly worried about global warming.

Polling increasingly shows that U.S. voters want climate action, a trend that has developed after several years of devastating disasters, as well as a surge in youth climate activism and a series of increasingly dire scientific reports. Democratic presidential contenders have taken notice — many in the field have endorsed the Green New Deal and the overwhelming majority have taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Inslee is running an entire campaign around climate action, but others have also fought to establish themselves as climate candidates. O’Rourke and former Vice President Joe Biden have both released large-scale climate plans, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has released several smaller proposals of her own. Sanders, who has a long history of supporting climate action and authoring legislation in the Senate, has yet to release a similarly detailed plan, but his campaign team has repeatedly assured supporters that one is coming soon.

Meanwhile, with polling showing President Donald Trump trailing on climate issues with U.S. voters, the president on Monday gave a speech defending his administration’s environmental record and slamming Democrats on things like the Green New Deal.

“From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet,” he insisted, a claim that data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows is false.