The word “emergency” usually conjures images of ambulances with flashing lights, homes going up in flames, or tornadoes tearing through a town. But increasingly, governments are using the word to describe a slower-burning crisis: climate change.
On Thursday, Hawaii became the first state to declare a “climate emergency,” joining 1,933 cities, town councils, and countries, including the European Union. According to The Climate Mobilization, a U.S.-based advocacy group, almost 13 percent of the global population now lives in a jurisdiction that has made a similar declaration.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the country’s only island state, and only one in the tropics, is signaling the need for more drastic action on climate change. The archipelago faces a dwindling freshwater supply, rising seas washing away coastlines, and the double whammy of extreme drought and flooding as dry areas get drier and wet areas get wetter. Hawaii’s coral reefs are expected to virtually disappear by the end of the century, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment. U.S. territories in the Pacific, such as Guam and American Samoa, face similar challenges.
“King tides, coastal erosion, long droughts, and extreme rains have impacted all our communities in the past few years, confirming that indeed the climate emergency is here,” said Kelly Takaya King, a Maui County councilmember, at a press conference on Zoom. “Only a coordinated effort that matches the speed and scale of climate change will make the progress needed to protect our environment, our livelihoods, and our culture.”
Introduced by state Senator Mike Gabbard (former presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s dad), the non-binding emergency resolution passed Thursday and was approved by the state’s legislature with only one “nay” vote. It acknowledges that an “existential climate emergency threatens humanity and the natural world” and calls for an immediate, statewide mobilization “that is rooted in equity, self-determination, culture, tradition,” and the belief that people have the right to drink clean water and breathe unpolluted air.
Pressure has been building on President Joe Biden to join in. In February, Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, and Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont introduced a bill that would require Biden to declare such an emergency. If Biden tapped into the National Emergency Act, it would open up more than 100 presidential powers, enabling him to ban crude oil exports and divert military funding to clean energy projects. It could also spur backlash, as some see such measures as anti-democratic since they circumvent Congress and as an example of overreach that would just end up stuck in court.
Critics of climate emergency declarations say that they can be empty words, but Hawaii has already indicated that it’s taking the crisis seriously. In 2018, Hawaii enacted ambitious climate legislation, setting a target to go carbon-neutral by 2045.
Regardless of what happens at the federal level, the passage of Hawaii’s resolution sets the stage for more states to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis. “Hawaii was the first state to pass a 100-percent clean, renewable energy goal,” Mike Gabbard said at a press conference. “Since then, 16 states have followed our lead. So hopefully other states will get on board.”