Climate Change Leads to a Sea Change in Hawaii and the World

Not sure if you noticed it, what with all the stories and hype about how we’re in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, but there was a pretty scary Associated Press story in the June 3 Maui News. Titled “Rising seas have towns wondering: Stay or go?,” the story detailed efforts in and around Los Angeles to deal with the fact–yes, I said fact–that the Pacific Ocean is consuming beaches around the world at a growing but still measurable rate.

“Up and down the California coast, some communities are deciding it’s not worth trying to wall off the encroaching ocean,” reported Alice Chang. “Until recently, the thought of bowing to nature was almost unheard-of.”

Very little of the story dealt with how the rising sea levels associated with climate change are affecting our state–“Hawaii’s famous beaches are slowly sinking, and some scientists think it’s a matter of time before the state has to explore whether to move back development” being the only mention of Hawaii in the article, and the sentence is ambiguous. For instance, many more individuals than “some scientists” are talking about changing coastal zoning laws.

Also, I have to note that the Hawaiian islands, like all islands throughout the Pacific, have eroded throughout time. But what makes the contemporary climate change so scary is that the erosion has sped up.

The vast majority of climate scientists around the world tell us the acceleration is due to industrialization–humanity’s decision over the last century to spew ever greater quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere.

“On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse,” states the official website of NASA, which knows a little about the makeup of our planet and atmosphere. “Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities have increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.”

Hence we see trees falling along the shoreline at Baldwin Beach. We see Honoapiilani Highway actually falling into the water at Ukumehame. This has been visible for the last decade, and it’s going to get worse. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has published a lot of climate change information pertinent to Hawaii on its website (, we can expect our whole way of living in Hawaii to change over the next 100 years–especially in the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where endangered sea and bird life may just vanish entirely.

“Melting of grounded ice and thermal expansion of the oceans are expected to continue for many hundreds of years with a predicted rise of two to three feet this century,” states the FWS website. “Low-lying coastal areas will be periodically or permanently inundated by seawater, and salt water intrusion will permanently alter low coastal wetlands and low-lying freshwater resources… Sea level rise also is directly implicated in increasing frequency and severity of high wave inundation and accelerate[d] beach erosion… which will impact coastal habitats (e.g., nesting areas), ports, and coastal infrastructure (e.g., roads, sewers, communities).”

Back in January, Honolulu Civil Beat ( ran a three-part editorial (prepared by the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy) detailing all the things Hawaii can do to prepare for the ocean lapping up onto our beaches and beachfront roads, homes and hotels. It also cataloged the various steps local governments around the state are already taking:

“Even without comprehensive state leadership, sea-level rise has been “on the radar” in Hawai‘i,” stated the Jan. 17, 2012 Civil Beat editorial. “The 2010 Kailua Beach and Dune Management Plan, developed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program, details goals, objectives, and implementation actions for adapting to sea-level rise on Kailua Beach. Also in 2010, Maui County incorporated sea-level rise adaptation into its county general plan by including policies for restricting development in areas prone to natural hazards, disasters, and sea-level rise. Last summer, 1,608 of 2,169 survey respondents (74.2 percent) on the forthcoming O‘ahu 2035 General Plan Update agreed that policies addressing the effects of sea-level rise are important considerations for updating the plan. The Department of Transportation, Harbors Division, incorporated a study assessing sea-level rise impacts on harbors and surrounding roadways in the August 2011 Hawai‘i Island Commercial Harbors 2035 Master Plan. DLNR has begun planning for climate change impacts on the state’s watersheds to protect Hawai‘i’s freshwater resources in The Rain Follows the Forest: A Plan to Replenish Hawai‘i’s Source of Water (November 2011).”

Of course, for many people (ie, Republicans) out there, I’m just talking nonsense. To them, I’m a dupe, a tool of the socialist agenda that seeks to destroy private property. Climate change, though as supported by empirical data as the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the sun, is to them just another branch of politics.

“Speaker [Newt] Gingrich has supported cap and trade for more than a dozen years,” said no less a conservative personage as failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum, back in February. “Now, he wants business incentives to go along with cap and trade, but he supported cap and trade, and sat on the couch with [former Democratic Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and said that global warming had to be addressed by Congress. Who is he or who’s Governor [Mitt] Romney to be able to go after President [Barack] Obama? I’ve never supported even the hoax of global warming.”

That Santorum was able to last so long on the campaign trail indicates how his “hoax” message resonated. Amazingly though, not all Republicans treat science with such caveman contempt. Romney has said many contradictory things about climate change on the campaign trail, but in 2010 he wrote the following into a book called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness:

“I believe that climate change is occurring–the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore,” Romney wrote. “I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor. I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to factors out of our control.”

Considering his propensity to say whatever he thinks he needs to say to whichever audience he happens to be addressing at the moment, it’s impossible to say what a “President Romney” might actually do when faced with the realities of climate change. Given the fact that small islands like Maui are already facing those realities, our actions are, right now, really the only ones that count.