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Dozens of groups petition FEMA to declare new classification of 'major disaster': 'Declarations really open up the broadest pockets of funding'

If successful, this petition could make a difference to millions of lives.

If successful, this petition could make a difference to millions of lives.

Photo Credit: iStock

On June 5, the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service announced the planet had recorded 12 consecutive months of record-breaking temperatures. 

Meanwhile, countries like Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have all witnessed unprecedented heat events in 2024, with some so intense they have caused wildfires and deaths.

With temperatures continuing to rise, environmental, health, and labor organizations are seeking to classify extreme heat and the impact of wildfire smoke as "major disasters," putting them on par with other extreme weather events like flooding. 

As the New York Times detailed, these groups have formed a petition that will be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking to reclassify heat-related weather issues. 

The move could release vital funds to help some of the most disadvantaged communities and areas that suffer the most from extreme heat.

"Major disaster declarations really open up the broadest pockets of funding that FEMA has available," said Jean Su, the petition's lead author who is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, per the NYT. "State and local governments are severely ill-equipped and underfunded to even deal with emergency measures."

Notably, it's hoped that if the petition is successful, it could lead to greater protections for outdoor workers, who are more exposed to heat waves and don't have as much access to cool areas. 

Citing the National Weather Service, the New York Times noted that extreme heat is responsible for more deaths each year than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, further signifying it as an overlooked weather event amid the climate crisis. 

FEMA has previously been reluctant to declare heat waves as major disasters, but it's increasingly clear that citizens need further protection in the face of rising temperatures.

Furthermore, as drought conditions increase the likelihood of wildfires, recent events should provide a persuasive case to issue the distinction. 

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service found that the 2023 Canadian wildfires accounted for 22% of the carbon emissions of 2,170 megatonnes of carbon produced by global wildfires during the whole year. 

The smoke produced by the Canadian wildfires was so bad it turned the sky red in New York, with areas across the central and eastern parts of the United States affected. During this time, New York City experienced the worst air quality of any city in the world, exacerbating respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

It's clear that more needs to be done to protect people from heat, and something as simple as a new designation from FEMA could improve public health and well-being. If successful, this petition could make a difference to millions of lives.

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