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Biden Promises to Visit Maui “as Soon as We Can” Amid GOP Criticisms

Contrary to GOP criticisms, Biden has activated federal emergency help, but he has not declared a climate emergency.

A burnt utility pole is seen on August 15, 2023, in Lahaina, Maui.

Amid protestations from Republicans, President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he and first lady Jill Biden would soon travel to Lahaina, Hawaii, and its surrounding areas to survey damage from the Maui wildfires that have so far been responsible for the deaths of over 100 individuals.

On Wednesday, Biden gave a definitive date, indicating that he and the first lady would go to Hawaii on August 21.

It’s not uncommon for presidents to survey damage from natural disasters, but they typically wait a certain amount of time before doing so, due to the high level of security requirements, which sometimes can interfere with cleanup or recovery efforts.

“My wife, Jill, and I are going to travel to Hawaii as soon as we can,” Biden said on Tuesday while giving a speech on the economy in Milwaukee. “That’s what I’ve been talking to the governor about but I don’t want to get in the way.”

Although Biden spoke about the wildfires last week, he has been criticized in recent days for staying relatively silent on the catastrophic damage and death toll the fires have wrought. Republicans have suggested his silence on the matter means he hasn’t done enough to address it. But the White House is pushing back, noting that dozens of federal agencies have assisted in helping state residents over the past week, providing tens of thousands of meals, bottles of water, cots, and other aid to the island.

Former President Donald Trump — Biden’s potential opponent in the 2024 presidential election — is among the chief critics of the current president, turning a video message in support of Hawaiians into a political missive against Biden. While belittling Hawaii Gov. Josh Green’s reference to the climate crisis, Trump bemoaned Biden for responding with a “no comment” when asked about the wildfires over the weekend.

But spokespersons for the president dismissed the criticism from Trump and GOP lawmakers, noting that actions speak louder than words in certain circumstances, particularly natural disasters like this one.

“We won’t be lectured by Republican officials in Washington who are doubling down on denial of the climate crisis that is devastating red and blue states, who attempted to slash the wildfire response budget, and who defended the Trump Administration cutting Puerto Rico off from hurricane relief,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.

Criticism of Biden has come from climate activists too, however, who say that he’s not doing enough to highlight how the climate crisis exacerbated the wildfires.

Although the Biden administration has said the president has, “practically speaking,” declared a climate emergency, Biden hasn’t done so in an official way, which would allow him to use his authority as president to unlock funding and other executive actions to address the climate crisis. While the president recently signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains billions of dollars in clean energy funding, his administration is under fire from environmentalists for failing to halt major fossil fuel projects.

“I beg you — I literally beg you — to formally declare a climate emergency,” said NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, speaking to Truthout about the issue and addressing Biden directly in his appeal. “Too few realize it yet, but we now risk losing everything.”

“We are living in the age of climate change and we’re getting our comeuppance now, unfortunately. The fact of the matter is the amount of drought to dry weather, heat, fueled [the Maui wildfires],” said Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University. “I feel that President Biden needs to call Hawaii a climate emergency.”