As President Joe Biden prepares to visit Maui, the Hawaiian island devastated by the deadliest wildfire in U.S. modern history, lawmakers and climate groups are begging the White House to do more to prevent future climate-related disasters.
Their argument: If the latest environmental catastrophe won’t spur the president into action, what will?
The fires, likely sparked by the island’s electric utility and heightened by climate change impacts, swept through the Pacific paradise last week, killing at least 110 people and leaving the famed town of Lahaina smoldering in ruins. As survivors search for missing family members and friends, and a housing crisis unfolds amid the vast destruction, climate activists and members of Congress are urging Biden to declare a national emergency over climate change.
It isn’t the first time the White House has faced calls to take this step, but the ongoing crisis in Hawaii and a string of climate events this summer — including this weekend’s first-ever tropical storm warning for southern California — have intensified the appeals, building pressure on the president ahead of his scheduled trip to the island disaster site Monday.
“Even when I talk about this issue, I tend to say things like, ‘I want to make sure my children have clean air and water — that they have running water. That they have a livable planet when they’re my age.’ But that’s not right. Tomorrow, you could wake up and your whole community could be ashes,” said Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation indigenous Hawaiian from Maui and the national director of the Green New Deal Network, a climate justice organization.
“That’s the urgency we’re operating under,” he added, “so if there was ever a moment to declare a climate emergency, it is right now.”
Alongside climate groups, many of Biden’s allies in Congress have urged him to invoke emergency powers, which would enable the president to take sweeping action to restrain greenhouse gas production, implement large-scale clean transportation solutions and finance distributed energy projects, among other actions.
“The devastation in Maui is a clear sign that the president must declare a climate emergency — now. While FEMA is providing resources to the local heroes on the ground fighting for the lives and livelihoods of Hawaiians, the underlying climate-driven conditions of drought, extreme heat, environmental injustice, and non-resilient infrastructure will remain,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement to POLITICO.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has long called on Biden to take this step, said that if the devastation in Hawaii isn’t a national emergency, “what is?”
“I refuse to accept that people choosing between burning alive or jumping into the ocean for hours on end is our new normal. This is a crisis and we need to treat it that way. That starts with President Biden declaring a national climate emergency to unlock vast federal resources and emergency powers to help our communities prepare for and recover from these deadly climate disasters,” he added.
Declaring a climate emergency could come with political risks for an incumbent president heading into an election year, potentially spurring a spike in already high gas prices. Plus, any executive action Biden takes would likely face legal challenges, including going up against a conservative Supreme Court that has already ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the broad authority to rein in carbon pollution.
Still, advocates and lawmakers are pushing the president to be bold amid the latest crisis, arguing that the move would also reap political benefits among disillusioned young voters, as well as communities of color who have been disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change.
While polls show that many Americans say they have heard little about the Inflation Reduction Act — the largest climate-focused investment in U.S. history — headlines on climate events have been continuous, and Biden’s approval for a massive oil drilling project in Alaska known as Willow earlier this year drew fierce opposition. Declaring a climate emergency would send a clear signal to these voters, Ing said.
“If he did that next week in Hawaii, I’d be standing right next to him. I’d be telling all my friends. I’d be campaigning for him all the way up until November. Because the stakes are too high to not. This is our last chance. There are six years left to really hit the transition — to decarbonize at the rate we need to. So this election, this is it,” he said.
The White House has so far avoided committing to an official declaration, while the president earlier this month said he has already “practically” declared a climate emergency.
Last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the president has called the climate crisis an emergency since “day one,” noting that Biden has used the Defense Production Act to jumpstart heat-pump manufacturing and the building of the electric grid. He’s also used the DPA to deploy money to stand up solar manufacturing and source needed materials for electric vehicles.
“While we’re trying to deal with this existential threat, this climate change crisis, the president is doing everything that he can to make sure that we are dealing with this … in a way that actually leads to results,” Jean-Pierre said Monday when asked if the president was considering declaring a national emergency. “And that’s what the president is going to continue to do.”
She also pointed to the Inflation Reduction Act’s investment in combating climate change, which the White House celebrated last week on the legislation’s one-year anniversary.
The work of the Sunrise Movement and other climate organizations has been credited with playing a key role in the passage of the country’s first climate law, which Evan Weber, a co-founder of Sunrise, says is his life’s greatest accomplishment.
Weber lives in Oahu and has been working to assist with recovery efforts in his state, as his friends in Lahaina continue to search for family members. Watching the anniversary celebration in Washington this week while his state burned and survivors provided DNA swabs to identify the ashes of their loved ones was painful, said Weber, who co-founded the nonprofit Our Hawai’i.
“The president and his Cabinet members often talk about the Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law as once-in-a-generation investments. And I think if that’s true, we are going to see a lot more Lahainas in the future,” Weber said, adding that Biden has done a lot of work on climate. “But we also really need him to know that just being the greatest president on climate action in United States history is the lowest bar in the world to clear, and it is not the same as acting at the scale of what science and the reality of our people on the ground demands.”
The federal response in Hawaii has been strong, Ing said, and the community is grateful for Biden’s upcoming visit. The president moved quickly to declare a major disaster declaration: There are over 1,000 federal responders on Maui and Oahu, and the government has provided over $7 million in financial assistance to nearly 2,200 households, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Saturday.
There are also 450 search and rescue teams on the ground, with 60 percent of the affected area searched as of Saturday afternoon. The shelter population also continues to fall, Criswell said, as FEMA, the Red Cross and the state pay for residents to transition into hotels.
Details of the president’s trip are still in flux, Criswell said, so it’s not yet clear if Biden will survey damage on the ground or fly over the path of destruction.
The president has vowed that Hawaii will get “everything it needs” and wants to meet with survivors who have been directly affected Monday, Criswell said. The hope among activists is that after the president sees the devastation in person, and hears directly from the people of Maui and Lahaina, that his promise will also include an official climate emergency declaration.
“It’s all coming to a head, and we’re just in a moment now where this makes the most sense,” said Michele Weindling, electoral director at Sunrise. “From every angle that you look at it, it is so clear that Biden making a climate emergency official is the no-brainer choice.”
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