The images in this week’s cover story illustrate the likely effects of climate change on Maui by mid- to late-century.
In recent days, we have seen melting roads in France, drought in the cities of India where wells have run dry, freak summertime hail storms in Mexico, and raging wildfire devouring the Everglades. The global weirding of climate change seems half a world away… until it’s not.
Historic Kaua‘i flooding, above-normal active hurricane seasons in the Pacific, streaks of record-high temperatures, king tides eating into Honoapi‘ilani Highway, and dying reefs have all shown that the effects of climate change are close to home. Like a doomsday prophecy of erratic weather to come, last week’s evening news projected images of a flash storm that inundated O‘ahu, struck three people with lightning, flooded roads, backed up storm drains, and lined cars in traffic on the Pali Highway deep into the middle of the night.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to writer Susan Halas about the subject of climate change and general human carelessness toward the environment. She’s been a journalist much longer than I have, so I asked her: “How have we, the media, failed?”
We’re now at a point when UN scientists have given us just 12 years to drastically alter human behavior to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change, Earth’s species are dying off faster than any time in human history, and ocean plastic pollution is expected to outweigh the fish in the sea by 2050. These are not new dangers and threats; we have known about how our activity is imperiling the planet for decades.
“Why have we not been able to communicate this to the public in time?” I asked, with a millennial’s urgency. “How did things get so bad? How can we communicate better the danger we’re in?”
There was no direct answer. Perhaps journalists just talk in stories.
Instead, Susan told me about a scientist she recently met: Tara Owens, a coastal processes and hazards specialist who works for the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant program. Owens, who consults with individuals and agencies such as the County of Maui Planning Department, recently showed Susan the Hawai‘i Sea Level Rise Viewer, a web-based modeling program that projects what the effects of sea level rise will look like on Hawai‘i’s coasts (see graphics at the bottom of this article). That’s one way to make the impacts of climate change visual and less abstract, we agreed. Susan began work on the article that is this week’s cover story.
In the story, Owens says that as a scientist rather than a politician, her calling is not to create solutions, but communicate data so decision-makers can make better choices. She adds, however, that it is discouraging when her findings aren’t taken into account. In one interesting exchange, Owens tells Susan, “In my work I don’t see ‘climate deniers’ so much as ‘climate ignorers.’”
Indeed, we are past the point of denying the conclusiveness of human-driven climate change. Recent surveys of scientific literature put the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change anywhere from 90 to 100 percent. The findings of the models in the Sea Level Rise Viewer have been published in peer-reviewed academic literature. So the question is, how much longer can we ignore this to the detriment of our planet and future generations?
How much longer can we continue developing (and then relocating) concrete monuments to cars that spew carbon dioxide? How much longer can we continue to sprawl development and pave over green space? How much longer can we rely on a visitors industry that turns our home, environment, and natural resources into a mere commodity to be bought, sold, and rented? How much longer can we import over 90 percent of our food over thousands of miles rather than growing it in carbon-sequestering local soil? How much more growth can we support before we begin to consume ourselves?
It all depends on how much longer we continue to ignore the dire state of our planet and the necessity for massive and serious change.
The consequence of climate ignorance, like last week’s images from Honolulu, haunt me. In a statement to Hawaii News Now, Honolulu City’s chief resilience officer Josh Stanbro called it an abnormal “freak winter-type” storm with “climate change fingerprints all over it” and “a good reminder that in order for us to protect our island and our safety, we need to move aggressively cut the cord to fossil fuels and make sure that we update our building codes and infrastructure to handle more severe weather.”
So after frantically googling what to do if caught in a lightning storm and wringing my hands over the idea that Maui’s Pali will one day be flooded and backed up like O‘ahu’s Pali, I asked Owens what she thought of the storm.
“While it is difficult to tie a single weather event to overall climate change,” she responded, “these events do provide a glimpse of the future and an indication of trends. While the focus of our story was sea level rise and we are already observing those impacts, climate change impacts overall will be much more wide-ranging.
“With climate change, we have observed and expect declining rainfall overall, so there will likely be longer periods of drought with bouts of heavy rainfall events. The implications of that kind of trend are far reaching, including flooding, erosion and runoff, and water shortages. It is the social implications of these impacts that are immediately evident, as in the traffic problems on O‘ahu that cause residents to spend hours in their commutes or prevent them from reaching their children at school or daycare.”
Flooding, erosion and runoff, and water shortages… sound familiar?
The global weirding of climate change is here. Don’t look away.