For years we’ve been hearing ominous rumblings about climate change and its many implications for the planet, especially Hawaii and other islands in the Western Pacific. The scenarios fueled by a rapidly expanding body of science are sobering: rising temperatures and prolonged droughts, dying coral reefs and dwindling fish stocks. Rising sea levels will eventually, for some atolls and low-lying areas of Hawaii, bring total inundation.
“We have lots and lots of science,” says Jesse Souki, director of the Office of State Planning (OSP). “We have a pretty good idea of what the problem is, and what’s going to happen. The hard part is figuring out what to do about it.”
Humans can respond locally and globally in two ways: We can mitigate, which means reducing the carbon emissions that are warming the planet, and we can adapt, as in figure out how to live with the changes we’ve already set into motion.
Act 234, adopted in 2007, is the state’s response to mitigation. It calls for cost-effectively rolling back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and has driven the Islands’ foray into renewable energy sources.
With Act 286, the state is now turning its attention to adaptation. Drafted by OSP and signed by Gov. Abercrombie this past July, the bill is intended “to encourage cooperation and collaboration . . . to plan for the impacts of climate change and avoid, minimize or mitigate loss of life, land and property for future generations.”
The Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) program at the East-West Center is trying to foster that collaboration by connecting scientists with decision-makers and local communities to come up with effective policies.
“Even if we have the best scientific information available, there’s still a human dimension to this,” says Dr. John Marra, regional climate services director with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. “You have to know the social systems, the cultural perspectives, if you want to apply this information and do something about it.”
PIRCA researchers are also trying to identify gaps in the science. “We haven’t really looked at all these factors happening simultaneously and how is that going to play out,” Marra says. “We’re recognizing we need to do that.”
The scope of the problem is also daunting. “Climate change is one of the biggest issues in the history of humanity that we’ve actually comprehended as it’s unfolding,” says Deanna Spooner, coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative. “The scale of it alone is something we’ve never faced before. If we don’t approach this in a coordinated way we will never be able to come up with actionable items. It’s just too big.”
Learning from others
To help make the issue more manageable, PIRCA recently released a report, Climate Change and Pacific Islands: Indicators and Impacts, that consolidates much of the existing scientific research pertaining to this region.
The report also features case studies that illustrate how people are adapting to new conditions associated with climate change. In anticipation of more frequent episodes of intense rainfall, for example, PVT Land Co. upgraded the storm drainage system and retention ponds at its commercial landfill in Nanakuli. As a result, when a storm dumped 10 inches of rain, it was able to remain open, which saved the company an estimated $1 million and kept hazardous runoff from reaching local beaches.
“People are really yearning for stories about how communities and real people are already adapting to climate change,” Spooner says. “That’s how we learn, from other people. Our next step is to focus on getting those stories out to start a larger conversation.”
Part of that larger conversation involves setting priorities. “It’s about making tough decisions,” William Aila, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) told a recent PIRCA forum. “We’re not going to have enough money to do everything.”
Adds Spooner: “Deciding what to do, that’s a value judgment, and it’s up to the citizens to say, ‘we value this.’ There’s no wrong answer to asking what you value the most, but there are priorities that will have to be set from the start.”
Act 286 identifies some “priority guidelines” that are intended to help state and county officials decide which adaption programs and policies should be funded. Priorities include public education, monitoring and research, considering Native Hawaiian traditional knowledge and practices in planning for the effects of climate change, and preserving and restoring natural features such as beaches, wetlands and forests, which can help mitigate some of the anticipated impacts.
To that end, Aila has launched an effort to protect forest watersheds, which serve as a sponge to collect rain and replenish groundwater. He is also is working to educate the public about the value of dams and reservoirs. “They are the storage capacity for the future when rainfall lessens,” he told the PIRCA forum.
Aila also made it clear that the state will maintain its policy against seawalls, which harden and damage the shoreline, even though pleas for such structures are likely to increase as multi-million-dollar coastal properties are threatened by sea level rise. “We’re going to have to tell some people no and they aren’t going to like it.”
Though it’s important to begin addressing the implications of sea level rise, it probably will be decades before Hawaii feels the full impact, Marra says. In the short term, Hawaii is likely to experience increased coastal flooding and erosion as high tides and storms combine with a modest increase in sea level.
“I like a pragmatic approach,” Souki says. “We’re not going to be drowning under water in 50 years. It will be a gradual sea level rise. We need to keep working incrementally in a way that doesn’t get landowners too excited because we’re talking about extreme measures, while still taking steps to protect public health and safety.”
“We’re in the nascent stages of dealing with this,” Souki adds, though he recognizes that some “tough decisions” will be required of decision-makers and regulators.
Still, as Hawaii and other Pacific islands grapple with adapting to climate change, one thing is clear, says Richard Wallsgrove, programs director of the Blue Planet Foundation: “The assumption that the future will be like the past is now gone.”