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Should Biden declare climate change an emergency? These Las Vegans think so

Updated May 23, 2024 - 8:37 am

Gerardo Velasquez is no stranger to the Las Vegas heat.

Since moving to Las Vegas in 2004, the 56-year-old has worked in solar panel installation — a tough job in the summer without adequate breaks, shade and hydration. With no solid, enforceable regulations, not every company provides the same tolerable working conditions.

And Velasquez’s high blood pressure has led him to forgo some work opportunities for fear of passing out, he said.

“It’s outrageous what is happening,” Velasquez said in Spanish, in front of a collage of spray-painted hazard signs with messages such as “We Can’t Work in a Heat Wave.”

Dual demands

Ahead of what’s projected to be another blistering desert summer, Velasquez and a crowd of about 100 Southern Nevada residents and activists from states including Florida, Oregon and New Jersey, gathered outside of the Biden-Harris campaign office in North Las Vegas Tuesday afternoon.

They have two demands. First, they are calling on the Biden administration to declare climate change a national emergency — a measure that could push finding legislative solutions to the climate crisis up on Congress’ priority list.

The vast majority of scientists agree the planet is warming, largely because of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels including coal, oil and gas. Nevada and the greater Southwest are seeing the effects of climate change every day, with impacts to public health, water supply, flooding and wildfires.

The coalition’s other ask is for workers like Velasquez. After governors from Texas and Florida publicly closed the door for outdoor worker protections on a state level, the coalition wants Biden to intervene.

With his executive power, he could encourage legislation that would force companies across the country to provide mandated breaks, shade and water.

In Clark County, the Southern Nevada Health District reported about 300 heat-related deaths last year, more than doubling the official count of people who died because of heat in 2022.

“We honor the dead and we fight for the living,” said Rico Ocampo, Make the Road Nevada’s director of organizing. “This is the year to take action: We demand President Biden call for climate emergency now.”

Tensions heat up

A Biden-Harris campaign spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday’s demonstration, instead pointing to action the administration has already taken such as rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and instructing the Department of Labor to further inspect workplaces made more dangerous by extreme heat.

John Lee, a Republican candidate for Congress who served as North Las Vegas mayor, said he doesn’t support either measure that activists are calling for. A national emergency would be “a distraction” from other issues such as inflation, he said.

Lee, who owned a plumbing company in Las Vegas for more than two decades, said he believes mandating worker protections wouldn’t be a productive use of funding.

“We don’t need to have a whole new bureaucracy that has people who go around to job sites and decide if they think it’s safe for employees,” Lee said. “Contractors are very cognizant of their employees, and they treat them with a lot of dignity.”

Ben Leffel, a UNLV professor who studies public policy related to sustainability, said surging temperatures in the Las Vegas Valley present a foreboding example for the rest of the country just beginning to grapple with three-digit temperatures. If extreme heat progresses in Nevada, Leffel said he believes tourists may begin to look elsewhere for summer travel.

“We have turned our habitat into a weapon,” Leffel said. “In deserts like this one, we need to reduce emissions while at the same time beginning to adapt and protect people.”

Contact Alan Halaly at ahalaly@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlanHalaly on X.

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