What’s a climate emergency declaration anyways? And why does it matter?

By Benjamin Eichert

Together, we’ve called on California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide climate emergency. I’d like to take a moment today to explain why that emergency declaration is an important step in our movement to green California and the world.

First, let’s talk about the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries, declared “code red for humanity.” According to the IPCC, the planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius. Why is that number important? Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to take actions to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. “We are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius in the near term,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

What’s the difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and 2 degrees? It’s a big one. The Climate Reality Project paints a picture:

“Going above 1.5 degrees of warming puts millions more [people] at risk of potentially life-threatening heatwaves and poverty. It all but wipes out coral reefs that entire ecosystems rely on worldwide. Seas swallow even more of our cities. And that’s just for starters.”

A draft IPCC report scheduled to be released in February 2022 makes the stakes even clearer, asserting there’s a 40 percent chance Earth will cross the 1.5-degree threshold by 2026, according to AFP. The AFP report further states, “on current trends, we're heading for three degrees Celsius [of warming] at best.”

That’s alarming. And it’s unacceptable. Here’s how an emergency declaration would kickstart dramatic climate action:
Under California state law, a formal emergency declaration gives the governor access to additional executive powers — and additional funding — to address the climate crisis. For example, Newsom recently issued an emergency declaration for Orange County to address the massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach.

Huntington Beach oil spill.

Patrick T. Fallon, AFP via Getty Images

Following an emergency declaration, the governor can immediately issue executive orders to address the emergency. These executive orders carry the force of law. Upon declaring a state of climate emergency for California, the governor can (and must, in our opinion) issue executive orders to quickly finance and build the infrastructure needed to decarbonize broad swaths of our economy and power our state with clean electricity. The governor can mandate strong labor standards to ensure high-quality work and good-paying jobs for the professionals leading the clean energy transition. He can transform financial incentives so that they benefit low and moderate income communities in their transition to clean energy. Finally, the governor can take steps to end California’s long legacy of environmental racism.

Why does California have to lead the way?

As the world’s fifth largest economy, California has the power to model serious climate action, and set the bar for other states and nations. In the absence of federal leadership, we believe it’s our moral responsibility to act.

What’s the bottom line?

The IPCC report, alongside the evidence of climate change we see in our daily lives, make clear that we’re in an emergency situation. In order for the governor to act with the urgency this situation requires, he must declare a state of emergency.


Remember: if you haven’t called on Gov. Newsom to declare a state of climate emergency in California, please do so today.