WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Photograph by Vava Ribeiro
from Atmos Volume 04: Cascade
Hawaii’s recent climate emergency declaration marks a first for the U.S. The Frontline explores what this could mean for the federal level and all of us living through this crisis.
I have yet to see much of the world, but Hawaii is one of the rare natural treasures I’ve had the pleasure to revel in. It’s a magical place—one that’ll expand your understanding of blues and greens as you take in the waters that surround it. But all that ocean makes the islands among some of the most threatened by climate change.
Already, we’re seeing coral reefs suffer and rainfall decrease due to global heating. However, scientists predict Hawaii will see more heat waves and floods as temperatures and seas rise. The climate crisis isn’t something of the future for Hawaiians. It’s arrived.
It comes as no surprise that the state became the first in the U.S. to declare a climate emergency on April 29. There’s no denying the climate crisis when you can see it unfolding in your backyard. There’s no excuse to delay action, either. Now, what will this mean for the rest of the country? Hawaiian residents are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, but as are those who are preparing for the hurricane and wildfire seasons in the South and West. Where are their emergency declarations?
Welcome to The Frontline, where we call it like we see it. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Climate emergency declarations have been gaining popularity internationally, but they haven’t seen much success beyond local municipalities in the United States. Hawaii may change that.
In the environmental movement, wins often come with a history. They don’t happen overnight and rarely are they the result of a single person. Climate consummations take months, if not years, of community organizing.
This is true in Hawaii, where the state legislature last week passed a resolution to declare a climate emergency. The grassroots campaign began in early 2019 when Sherry Pollack and David Mulinix, co-founders of 350 Hawaii (and climate power couple), started an online petition calling on Gov. David Ige to declare a climate emergency. Fast forward two years later and the climate group helped draft the text to pass. Sure, the resolution doesn’t have any teeth to incentivize or punish action or lack thereof. It does, however, serve as a pressure point for organizers to hold their leaders accountable. More importantly, these declarations send a clear message to the public: Our house is on fire.
“By passing this climate emergency declaration, it’s really a cornerstone to be able to push our lawmakers to take more bold action at the scale and speed that’s really required,” Pollack said.
Not only does such a declaration send a clear message to Hawaii but also across the U.S. Pollack and Mulinix hope this encourages a federal climate emergency declaration. Lawmakers introduced a bill in February pushing the president on this. Such action could go beyond symbolism; it would hold actual legal power. Climate organizers in other states, including California and Florida, are also pushing their leaders to declare state-level climate emergencies, but imagine what would be possible if state leaders had the support of the highest office.
“The upshot is that the president has real authorities that President Joe Biden could tap into if he did declare a climate emergency,” said Mark Nevitt, an associate professor at Syracuse University College of Law who teaches and researches in the fields of climate change, environmental law, and national security law.
Still, that doesn’t mean a federal declaration should be handled lightly. Nevitt believes the executive office should maximize its options through traditional lawmaking before resorting to emergency-level actions, but “time is of the essence,” he said. President Biden could ostensibly plug into the National Emergencies Act to trigger an emergency-level response if the crisis warrants it (which many advocates say it already does). Under this law, the U.S. has responded to COVID-19 and 9/11. Former President Donald Trump used this authority to declare an emergency at the border wall in 2019.
“When people realize that they are actually in danger, then they act. Until then, it’s all politics and bullshit.”
“The National Emergencies Act serves as sort of a master key, which unlocks all these different legal authorities that are peppered throughout the U.S. code,” Nevitt said.
If Biden did the same to prevent the climate crisis, he could immediately take action against Brazil’s failure to protect the Amazon Rainforest, suspend oil or gas leases, or coordinate the transportation sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no legal definition of “emergency” in the U.S., which gives the president plenty of power over what he includes. Too much power is always dangerous, though. And opponents would likely use that argument to fight any federal climate emergency declaration—even if scientists use such language.
“Hawaii recognizes the magnitude of this climate crisis. Now, it’s time for the rest of the country to join them,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer in a statement to Atmos. “Last Congress, I worked with Oregon environmental activists to draft a climate emergency resolution that captured the urgency of this moment. President Biden has done an outstanding job of prioritizing climate in the early days of his administration, but after years of practiced ignorance from Trump and Congressional republicans, an even larger mobilization is needed.”
While the president weighs his options, organizers with The Climate Mobilization, which is campaigning for such declarations and pushing for strong climate policy to follow, are focusing on local battles. Matt Renner, the organization’s executive director, described Hawaii as a “breakthrough.” He believes that states like Florida and California will be next.
Though emergency declarations are hard enough to secure, the real work comes after. Leaders may support this move to gain political points, but putting their words into action isn’t easy, especially when it involves transforming our lifestyles and homes. Gas-powered cars aren’t the future. Neither are gas stoves. The public may not appreciate such changes if they don’t understand firsthand why they’re necessary.
“When people realize that they are actually in danger, then they act,” Renner said. “Until then, it’s all politics and bullshit.”