Cover Story

Flood damage in Kihei, Maui, after heavy rainfall
Image: Victoria Keener

A new report brings together all the science and concludes it’s time to act.


Cover image for Jan 2, 2013

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.”

Two-pronged plan

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.”

Informing action

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.”

To view the report, visit []

Running Dry

“[T]he main thing that’s gonna screw the Islands is lack of rain, of fresh water,” says Dr. Carl Berg, a Kauai marine biologist who attended a December forum hosted by PIRCA.

In Hawaii, it’s tricky to predict future impacts on rainfall and freshwater resources because the region has a lot of natural climate variability, says Dr. Victoria Keener, a hydrologist and lead editor of the new PIRCA report.

Still, research indicates that leeward areas are likely to be under an increased risk of drought, which could have implications for resort, residential and agricultural activities there. Droughts may also be prolonged.

“The general thought in the climate modeling community is that wetter areas in the future will stay the same and possibly get wetter and drier regions will get drier,” Keener says.

Meanwhile, rainfall has decreased over the past century across much of the Pacific Islands region, according to the PIRCA report. Groundwater discharge to Hawaii streams has significantly declined during that same period, a trend that has serious implications for a state where 99 percent of the drinking water comes from groundwater sources.

Development tap-out

On Oahu, existing permits will take the aquifer nearly to its maximum sustainable yield. Honolulu already uses 440 million gallons of water per day. “Yet, demand for water is expected to increase with population growth and economic development,” the report notes.

Average surface air temperatures are also rising, and the warmer, drier conditions could further deplete freshwater supplies.


These are some of the challenges that legal scholar Richard Wallsgrove explored, along with existing laws and policies, in a recent analysis of how Hawaii might adapt its management of fresh water to climate change.

His year-long review, funded by the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, resulted in a white paper that identifies adaptive tools for managing local water resources. These include making sure the state water plan is updated every five years, implementing mandatory water conservation and recycling plans, expanding water management areas and being more diligent about monitoring resources.

It’s the first in-depth assessment of how to apply adaptive management to a particular resource in Hawaii, and Wallsgrove says people have been responsive and interested when he’s made presentations around the state. “But at the top of everybody’s list is how do you pay for it?” he says. “They don’t have the staff resources to take care of it.”

Efficiency is affordable

While some fees may need to be increased, Wallsgrove says it’s also possible to save money through greater efficiency. “The concept that we can’t afford to handle climate change is so myopic it blows my mind,” he says. “You can’t afford not to.”

Sea Change

“Climate change is not good for coral reefs anywhere,” says Dr. Alan Friedlander, a fisheries ecologist with the University of Hawaii. Rising temperatures and carbon emissions are causing oceans to become warmer and more acidic, conditions that undermine the health of the entire marine ecosystem, particularly coral reefs.

The acid test

Acidification hinders reef building, while warming fosters bleaching and disease, which can weaken and kill coral. When combined with other stressors, such as increased limu growth, polluted runoff and sediment from land, overfishing and climate-triggered interference between times of food availability and spawning, the overall effect on Island fisheries is expected to be significant.

Coral reefs provide food and shelter for many fish, especially the young, Friedlander explains. As reef conditions degrade, Hawaii is likely to see reduced spawning capacity in fish, as well as slower growth and decreased species diversity.

Fewer fish

“We’re gonna see a really dramatic decrease in the amount of productivity in the oceans worldwide . . . and Hawaii particularly,” Friedlander says. As productivity declines on the lower end of the food chain, it will adversely impact the pelagic stocks, like ‘ahi and ono, at the top. Scientists are also expecting more desert-like “dead zones” in the ocean.

Still, “all is not lost,” Friedlander says. “We’re just going to have to take a more active role in management. There’s gonna have to be a sea change in Hawaii, where we have a 100-year history of pretty much laissez-faire management of fisheries, particularly coastal fisheries.”

He favors international cooperation on wide-ranging pelagic fish stocks, and community-based oversight of nearshore fisheries.

Ultimately, the two solutions to climate change are to “stop making babies and stop driving cars,” Friedlander says. “In the absence of that, a lot of what we can do is pretty much triage, the bandaid approach. But there’s a lot that can be done locally to mitigate climate change. We need to reduce the stressors both in and out of the water.”

Hawaii needs to get a handle on how many fish are currently being caught, which will help researchers monitor fishery health and facilitate better management strategies, he says. Meanwhile, marine protected areas and community-managed areas seem to benefit reefs.

“The more intact an ecosystem is, the more resilient and resistant it is to climate change,” Friedlander points out. “That’s why we should care and not throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything.”

Hope for Hawaii

Of the 13,950 peer-reviewed articles published on climate change in scientific journals, only 24 articles reject its existence. Most folks in Hawaii agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is real.

We believe it because “we’ve experienced it in a way that other people in America have not,” explains Dr. Melissa Finucane, a senior fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in climate risk perception. “If you go to Honaunau and see that the site where Captain Cook died is now underwater, it’s hard to say sea level is not rising. You can see beaches eroding; streams that you played in as a child are dry. Those kinds of experiences touch people in a way that’s really hard to get across with statistics and science.”

And, as Berg points out, “Some of the lead scientists in the world in climate change are here in Hawaii.”

Ahead of the game

In the Pacific Islands region, experts are moving beyond collecting climate change data to addressing what to do about it. “That’s very different from most of the regions on the mainland,” says Keener. “The more information you have, the better equipped you are to deal with it. We have a great opportunity to go forward here, and the political will is there.”

Furthermore, Finucane says, “a lot of federal money has come into the region lately” to support some of the research, mitigation and adaptation efforts. “We’re very fortunate here in that the [Abercrombie] administration is very progressive and not afraid to say climate change is happening and we have to address it now.”

Don’t sit on it

Still, people shouldn’t become complacent, scientists warn.

“What we often find is it takes a good generation or so before you start seeing behavior changing,” says Spooner. “I don’t think we have the luxury of a generation to wait until we start making these really hard decisions as a society.”

Berg agrees, noting that some of the newest computer models indicate climate change “is happening a lot faster than we said it would earlier.”

Get involved

Nor should citizens forget that there’s room for them at the climate change table.

“I would urge people to seek out more information about what interests you, and how you can help the experts better understand the changes in the places you love,” Spooner says. “Then carry those stories to your elected officials and let them know you care.”