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Hawaii Poised to Become First State to Declare Climate Emergency

While nonbinding in its scope, the measure is “a recognition of symbolic importance” on the issue, one activist said.

The Hawaii State Capitol building in Honolulu, pictured May 3, 2019.

The Hawaii state legislature is set to make history later on Thursday by becoming the first state in the country to pass a resolution declaring a climate emergency.

Hawaii lawmakers will declare in a nonbinding resolution that the current global climate crisis is a threat to both humankind and the environment. The text of the resolution calls for a collaborative effort to address the effects of the crisis and come up with ways to halt the increase of global temperatures.

“We must take strong action to address climate change related challenges, such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, and the protection of our critical infrastructure,” the resolution’s primary sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Mike Gabbard, said in a statement.

Although it does not have any forceful language requiring immediate action on the climate crisis, the resolution calls for state lawmakers to seek ways to prohibit “any further public or private investment or subsidies in projects that will make the climate emergency worse, such as coal, oil, gas, and tree-burning projects.” It also asks for lawmakers to pass bills that facilitate investments in low- and zero-emission projects, including reforestation efforts throughout the state.

While more must be done, climate activists in the state have praised the move.

“It’s a recognition of symbolic importance…. It provides for collaboration statewide for a transition to a cleaner environment,” said Ted Bohlen of Climate Protectors Hawaii in a committee hearing earlier this month. “And these are important, even though it’s just a resolution.”

The climate crisis has already had a tremendous impact on Hawaii, particularly for its Indigenous peoples. Droughts have become more commonplace on the islands, according to the Climate Reality Project, which have detrimentally affected freshwater streams and rivers, reducing access to water for Hawaii’s Indigenous peoples and the broader ecosystems in general.

“The limited amount of freshwater has a disproportionate impact on Hawaii’s Native peoples as the increased droughts threaten the growth of important traditional food sources, like taro and breadfruit,” the organization’s website explained.

Rising sea levels are also a concern for the state. One study in 2012 found that 70 percent of beaches on the islands of Kauai, Oahu and Maui were already experiencing long-term coastal erosion.

The rise in sea levels are speeding up, too. Since 1950, the sea level around Hilo Bay in Hawaii has gone up by 10 inches, and over the past 10 years, sea levels in that area have increased by one inch every four years.

While Hawaii is the first state in the U.S. to declare a climate emergency, several other governments have made similar pronouncements. In 34 countries across the globe, 1,933 jurisdictions have also declared such emergencies.

At the federal level, a bill introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and co-sponsored by more than 40 other lawmakers, would obligate President Joe Biden to announce a climate emergency — but since February there has not been any action on the proposal.