Climate emergency declared in New York City

New York City, the world capital of ambition, has never been shy about grandiose declarations. The City Council has passed or proposed resolutions demanding world peace, banning a racist slur and condemning all manner of federal policies where city government has no actual say.

But for a growing global network of activists seeking to change the way the world talks about climate, the city’s sweeping resolution in late June declaring a “climate emergency” is a major victory.

The city is now the largest on earth to pass such a measure.

Saying that the heating climate is a crisis of imminent danger, they argue that getting people and governments to describe it in far more urgent language is the only way to produce the level of global mobilization required to stop it.

New York is now the largest city on earth to pass such a measure, calling last week for “an immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate.” It joined London, Sydney and a total of 722 localities in 15 countries, according to the Climate Mobilization, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group pushing the declarations.

And on Wednesday, Los Angeles’s City Council went further. It passed a measure that will formalize its own emergency declaration, calling climate change one of the most important issues facing the city. It also established a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department and laid out steps to make city agencies and the public take newly vigorous and coordinated action against planet-warming emissions.

Margaret Klein Salamon, a founder of the Climate Mobilization, an environmental advocacy group, said emergency declarations build political pressure to take stronger actions, like New York’s recent sweeping state and city laws to curb emissions.

“Because what are elected leaders supposed to do if not protect us from emergencies?” she said.

By themselves, emergency declarations have no more force than other political proclamations. And just as no individual country can stop climate change within its borders, cities and states’ toolboxes are limited without the support of federal law and international agreements.

That hasn’t stopped states and smaller jurisdictions. New York City recently mandated that the owners of its largest buildings slash their emissions impact, and new legislation requires New York State to eliminate nearly all greenhouse gas output by 2050.

But questions remain about whether even these measures — with far more teeth than a council declaration — will achieve their goals.

Government agencies need to “start making things happen — and fast,” including acting against the interests of real estate, energy and other lobbies that traditionally wield political clout, said Pete Sikora, climate justice director for New York Communities for Change. His group supported the state and city laws but contends they do not go far enough.

Government agencies need to “start making things happen — and fast,” including acting against the interests of real estate, energy and other lobbies that traditionally wield political clout, said Pete Sikora, climate justice director for New York Communities for Change. His group supported the state and city laws but contends they do not go far enough.

Declarations have increased as public alarm has grown

The first local climate emergency was declared in Darebin, Australia, in 2016. The following year, Hoboken, N.J., became the first American city to follow suit. Groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, which calls for nonviolent civil disobedience to spur climate action, have made the declarations a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The movement has grown with extreme climate events that have been impossible to ignore: wildfires, storms and droughts, plus heat waves that set record temperatures in Europe last week and made June the world’s hottest month on record.

Last fall, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that keeping global warming at the minimum level to avert catastrophe would, as New York’s resolution put it, “require an unprecedented transformation of every sector of the global economy over the next 12 years.”

Six in ten Americans are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the share of those choosing “alarmed” more than doubled from 2013 to 2018.