Opinion: The Case for a Real National Emergency

When President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency to advance construction of a wall on the United States’ southern border, debate sparked over whether such use of broad executive power would come back to bite the Republican Party should a Democratic president do the same.  

And perhaps that president should: with a myriad of legitimate crises facing our nation and our world, perhaps we should be embracing innovative ideas to address them.

For those decrying excessive federal overreach: doing so would hardly be without precedent, as I tell my AP U.S. History students:

In 1929, the United States was launched headlong into the Great Depression. Our banking and financial system collapsed. Our national agricultural base was in shambles. Unemployment reached 25%, and countless found themselves homeless. In order to provide such widespread relief, recovery, and reform, massive and unprecedented action was a must, which was in the mind of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he delivered his first inaugural address in 1933:

“I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

This “war against the emergency [of the Great Depression]” manifested in the New Deal, which ushered in a fundamental overhaul of what the nation believed was possible: a record combination of Acts, Agencies, and Administrations — combined with record-high progressive taxation — stabilized the farming and financial industries, provided economic relief to those in need, and launched mass-scale infrastructure projects that reshaped the American landscape.

This period of unprecedented action and innovation continued as the nation entered World War II and took the lead in the Allied victory over autocracy and fascism: Cost-Plus Contracts converted the American industrial giant to rapid, mass-scale production of arms, ammunition, ships, tanks, battlefield transport, and airplanes. Factories employed as many people as possible, reaching an unemployment rate of 1.2% in 1944 — a record that stands to this day.

Victory gardens littered the landscape, the Bracero Program reshaped US immigration policy, and roughly 425,000 Italian and German POWs were used for agricultural production. Many states changed their child labor laws to provide a larger workforce, and many young men and women dropped out of school to take up a job. Women took jobs in factories to support the war effort, and even filled jobs vacated by the men who left to fight, while countless volunteers flocked to the Red Cross and the USO to do their part. 

State Guards were formed to address internal security duties in the absence of the deployed National guard; the Civil Air Patrol provided air reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, and transport; and the Coast Guard Auxiliary used civilian boats and crews for rescues.  Coastal and border towns built new surveillance towers, and spotters were trained to recognize enemy aircraft.

Early in the war, when German U-Boats used the backlighting of coastal cities to destroy ships leaving harbor, local civilian defense units ensured that lights were either off, or thick curtains were drawn over all windows at night. The homefront also featured strong conservation efforts, with various items being rationed or, in many cases, saved after use for making soap, artillery shells, life jackets, etc.

As a result of these drastic actions, America was united in civil spirit as soldiers and civilians alike did their part to lead the free world against the greatest threat it had ever known. Not only were we victorious, but our nation emerged as the premier global superpower, not only in terms of military prowess but in economic might.

Of course, there were plenty of nay-sayers who decried the perceived impossibility of the success of the New Deal and war mobilization — thankfully, America proved them wrong.

Today, we face a far more grave and existential threat: climate change. With roughly a decade to make core fundamental changes to how we consume and expend resources before the impacts of climate change become irreversible, the human race finds itself in need of bold action and direction. This is not merely an issue of national concern; it is a global emergency and must be treated as one.

The victorious presidential candidate in 2020, regardless of partisan affiliation, will have the power to mobilize the massive industrial and innovative might of the United States, and has an imperative to do so.

A framework for action has already been introduced in Congress: the Green New Deal, which features a call for a massive infrastructural undertaking toward a 100% renewable energy portfolio, that addresses both supply-side and demand-side considerations. While its other provisions — a massive expansion of Medicare and a Universal Basic Income, to name a few — should certainly be subject to debate, there is no real debate on climate change — the scientific community is in virtual accord on it. Every minute we spend having to convince the ignorant that our species faces an existential threat is a minute we aren’t spending addressing that threat.  

The time to act is now; we have done it before and must do it again. If that requires our president declaring a national emergency, so be it.