We were offering a Saturday seminar on the Great Depression and the New Deal to high school history teachers in Chicago, showing them how to use primary documents to improve their teaching. They had read three speeches by Franklin Roosevelt and three by Herbert Hoover, framing the debate. One participant raised her hand and said, “I used to think Herbert Hoover was just a stick in the mud who didn’t want to help anyone. Now I see him asking an important question: Do we need to change the entire American system to address an economic emergency?”
That is often the right question to ask when the government starts expanding its power and activity in the face of a perceived crisis or emergency. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, captured that inclination of government when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
To understand turning ordinary policy into a crisis, we can “Go Back” to Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic growth of an alphabet soup set of new federal agencies under his control, his issuance of a presidential record of executive orders, and his expansion of the federal government’s role in economic regulation and social policy, all in the name of addressing the Great Depression. As our high school teacher put it, he used the Great Depression to change the whole American system. And he captured how many feel about climate change today when he said, of the economic situation then, the American people want “action, and action now.”
Other presidents have likewise expanded government, and especially executive power, by declaring wars on domestic problems such as poverty, crime, drugs, terror and the like. Meanwhile, presidents, governors and mayors declare all manners of emergencies, largely so they can expand their power and eliminate the checks and balances and deliberation of normal government.
The recent announcement that the federal government would now manage the dwindling supply of water in the Colorado River if the three states most affected by it could not agree is a clear signal that President Biden is moving toward crisis government in the name of climate change. This follows several sets of executive orders Biden has signed to respond to the “emergency” and the “clear and present danger to the United States” of climate change. (White House Fact Sheet, July 20, 2022). Only a 6-3 Supreme Court decision stood in the way of the EPA exercising broad powers to curb planet-warming pollution from power plants. Congress, the Court reminded, has that power and did not delegate it to the EPA. (West Virginia v. EPA, June 30, 2022).
Climate change is now blamed for pretty much everything that goes wrong, from changes in weather to national security and even income tax collections by the IRS. In addition to studies and debates about climate change itself, we also need to be debating how the government goes about addressing it. This is the debate and deliberation that is lost when presidents race toward government by emergency, crisis and war. There is a role for local and regional governments to play, along with scientific development and market incentives, all of which need not be taken over by the federal government. Climate change requires all hands on deck, not federalizing all hands under the president.
The big question is whether President Biden will formally declare climate change a national emergency, which knocks down more checks and balances, eliminates deliberation, and puts the president in charge of an even more powerful and accelerated federal government. Congress needs to step up, as the Supreme Court has done, and say that this is not just a matter of presidential power and initiative. We ought not change the entire American system again to address climate change.