If I had to guess, I’d put environmental catastrophe at the top of the list of potential causes for civilization collapse. True, there’s a lot of doom to choose from nowadays, with asteroids narrowly missing Earth and strange prognostications of an artificial intelligence uprising. But even as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock responds to Trump-brand belligerence by ticking perilously close to the apocalyptic midnight of nuclear war, a number of other scientists have made one precarious aspect of our existence clear.
“By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species,” agreed a group of 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries in the journal BioScience, “Humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.”
NASA’s not any more optimistic, and has stated that human-caused climate change is a continuing reality we’ll have to learn to deal with. Referring to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide that are higher than the Earth has held in millions of years, Annmarie Eldering, a deputy project scientist at NASA told Yale Environment 360, “Reaching 400 [parts per million] is a stark reminder that the world is still not on a track to limit CO2 emissions and therefore climate impacts… Passing this mark should motivate us to advocate for focused efforts to reduce emissions across the globe.”
“At the current rate of growth in CO2, levels will hit 500 ppm within 50 years, putting us on track to reach temperature boosts of perhaps more than 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F),” the Yale Environment 360 article continues, “a level that climate scientists say would cause bouts of extreme weather and sea level rise that would endanger global food supplies, cause disruptive mass migrations, and even destroy the Amazon rainforest through drought and fire.”
Basically, we’re screwed.
But if you live in Hawai‘i, you might have already realized that. The historic flood that inundated Kaua‘i this spring was the result of 50 inches of rain within a 24 hour period–the most rainfall recorded since measurements have been taken in the state. “The flooding on Kauai is consistent with an extreme rainfall that comes with a warmer atmosphere,” Chip Fletcher, a professor of geology and geophysics at UH Manoa, told the Los Angeles Times. “Just recognize that we’re moving into a new climate, and our communities are scaled and built for a climate that no longer exists.” Months later, Kaua‘i residents are still recovering.
The flooding happened after we saw the rise of “king tides.” A 2017 article from the University of Hawai‘i reported on researchers who claimed that floods and king tides are just a glimpse into the future of continued global warming. “As sea levels continue to rise with global warming, we will see more and more instances when not just king tides but ordinary high tides combine with high water levels to reach flood stage, with adverse impacts to our beaches, coastal infrastructure, wetlands and low-lying areas of the islands,” said Mark Merrifield, a UH Manoa oceanography professor, who also serves as director of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant CCSR and UH Sea Level Center.
Then there are hurricanes. Reporting on an article in the journal Nature by Hiroyuki Murakami, the UH Manoa International Pacific Research Center quoted a troubling statement: “Our projections for the end of this century show a two-to-three-fold increase [in tropical cyclones] for this region.” So, while Puerto Rico still reels from last year’s Hurricane Maria, which may have taken nearly 5,000 lives (“You’ve done a fantastic job,” Trump said to FEMA), we may be in for an above-average hurricane season.
Batten down the hatches.
These impacts of pollution and human activity on the climate are concerning enough without mentioning the damage being done to the environment due to a proliferation of plastics and agrochemical runoff that’s destroying reefs and poisoning marine ecosystems.
Anyway… I mention all of this to say: we are seriously screwed.
It’s easy to forget the impact of our modern lifestyle and hundreds of years of industrialization. That is, until South Kihei Road is impassable, the Pali is underwater or we’re filling propane in preparation for yet another hurricane.
But it’s not hopeless. It’s been said that the biggest variable in climate change prediction models is us. Human behavior and whether we choose to mitigate climate change by limiting and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, or to blindly continue haphazard, self-destructive growth, will ultimately determine the speed and scope of climate change. Our choices as a species will determine our fate.
Thankfully, although the U.S. EPA now merely masquerades as a scientific organization while actually dismantling environmental protections (and using federal funds to pay for first class flights, $15,000 pens, a $43,000 phone booth and locating a used Trump Hotel mattress), Hawai‘i lawmakers have more sense.
Last week, Governor David Ige signed three bills that address climate change. He was accompanied by State Representative Angus McKelvey (West Maui, Ma‘alaea, North Kihei), a member of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee who attended the signing to underscore the impact of climate change on his Maui district.
The first bill, HB2106, requires a sea-rise analysis in any environmental impact statement before building a project. “Sea level inundation is already having an impact on our West Maui beaches, the Honoapi‘ilani Highway, and homes and condos near the shoreline,” McKelvey said in a statement. “It just makes sense to finally take a proactive approach to adapting to sea level rise so that we don’t approve more buildings or infrastructure in future tidal zones.” This issue has recently come up in a lawsuit filed by Maui Tomorrow and the Sierra Club Maui Group, which challenges the approval of Anaergia’s planned sludge processing plant near Kanaha Beach.
HB1986 directs the creation of a framework for a carbon offset program. A carbon offset program would grant carbon credits for activities that capture greenhouse gases. Credits could then be sold to projects or companies to help them meet their emission goals or limits, incentivising ecological action. “This could not only help create a green investor economy in Hawai‘i but be a key stimulus to create economic growth through reforestation of areas, making it more viable to pursue capturing carbon through reforestation and carbon farming rather than development,” McKelvey said.
These two bills coordinate with HB2182, which aims for a carbon neutral Hawai‘i by 2045 and establishes the Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force. McKelvey stated, “Our commitment to upholding the tenants of the Paris Accords despite its abandonment by the federal government.”
These bills give me yet another reason to be proud I live here, where we lead in sustainability. In 2015, Hawai‘i set what’s considered one of the most aggressive energy goals in the nation by aiming for 100 percent renewables by 2045. SB2571 and SB3095 are awaiting Ige’s signature and would place restrictions on oxybenzone-containing sunscreens and the pesticide chlorpyrifos. [Editor’s note: following press time, SB3095 was signed into law by David Ige.] UH Maui College plans on being the first net-zero campus in the University of Hawai‘i system in 2019, which means it would not use more energy than it creates through renewable sources. Maui County has long done away with plastic bags at grocery stores, and at the end of this year styrofoam will also be banned.
There’s more work to be done, of course. The old HC&S land waits to be developed. Local people are in need of affordable homes as the housing market is skewed by vacation rentals. Millions are dumped into marketing Maui to tourists while investment in local agriculture is a mere fraction of that. Hotels, golf courses and large agribusinesses use chemicals that choke out our reefs.
Last week, I spoke with Maui Hemp Institute’s Steve Rose. Something he said stuck with me: “We can prove it here and then we would be a model for the world.” He was referring to hemp, but this rings true for much more. Hawai‘i is special. It’s a microcosm of the world, a finite ecosystem where the web of interconnection is dense. If we can prove that sustainability is possible and that it enriches our lives, health and environment, we can be an example for the world.
“He wa‘a he moku, he moku he wa‘a,” states an ‘olelo no‘eau–”A canoe is an island, an island is a canoe.” Our resources are limited and we are all in this voyage together. Understanding that the ‘aina is fundamental to our existence is written in the fabric and history of this land. Any discussion of progress has to begin with a premise of balance, care and respect. If we honor that, we’ll make the world a better place.
Note: Angus McKelvey is running for reelection to the State House. His opponents did not respond to a request for comment.