Forum tackles impacts of climate change, strategies

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KAILUA-KONA — The debate is long over.

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KAILUA-KONA — The debate is long over.

Temperatures are rising, both on land and at sea. The aina is drying out as rainfall totals plummet, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions across the globe as droughts attack agricultural production and limit sources of drinking water. Tropical storms are more frequent and more powerful than ever before.

Climate change is an existential threat and its results are already noticeable in Hawaii, particularly on Hawaii Island, which is home to several ecosystems that make the island as or more varied environmentally than just about any other location in the world.

How will the state respond to this threat? How can it? What are the best approaches? These questions, and others, were addressed Thursday night at a climate change forum held in West Hawaii, which was hosted by John DeFries, director of the Hawaii County Department of Research and Development.

Guest speaker Scott Glenn, director of the Hawaii Office of Environmental Quality Control and an adviser to Gov. David Ige, said the consensus approach has been to bite off little pieces of the complex problem one at a time, starting with what is already known.

“What we’re looking at is not climate change, but we’re looking at hazards, we’re looking at threats, we’re looking at things we already know about and know how to handle,” Glenn said. “So you can say higher temperatures will result in increased winds and more hurricanes. We already have laws. We have building codes. We have police powers for enforcing actions involving hurricanes and the aftermath of hurricanes. How do we make those work better?”

He continued.

“The idea is applying a climate lens. We look at what we have now, what’s existing, and say if we looked at this from a climate change point of view, does it work? And if it doesn’t, why not? And what can we tweak about it to help make it work? And then, by doing that, we’ll also figure out what do we not have any legislative cover for?”

Two-pronged approach

Despite the position of President-elect Donald Trump — who has repeatedly indicated he doesn’t believe climate change exists, going so far as to call it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government in an attempt to undermine American manufacturing concerns — Hawaii’s political leadership from Washington on down almost universally recognizes climate change as both real and as a top priority.

Glenn said the approach to combating climate change is two pronged: Mitigation to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions is first, followed by adaption, or figuring out how to live in a world reformed by human-induced climate change.

It’s something the state legislature began addressing in 2007, with the passage of Act 234 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

It continued in 2012 with Act 286, which established climate change adaption priority guidelines and amalgamated them with the state’s planning system.

Most recently, Gov. David Ige announced the Sustainable Hawaii Initiative at the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Oahu in September. It contains several key goals including 100 percent renewable energy usage throughout the state, doubling local food production and a biosecurity plan to guard against invasive species, which have demonstrated the propensity to damage Hawaii’s ability to become and remain self-sufficient.

Beyond operating as islands unto ourselves in several meaningful ways, DeFries said the Hawaiian Islands must unite with the roughly 175,000 other islands and 600 million islanders around the world to create a coalition and thereby an international voice on the subject of climate change.

“If islands are going to have a voice at the international policy level, we’re going to have to unite,” he said. “Islands contribute the least amount to climate change and will be the first to be impacted. Our motivation is very different than those on the continent.”

Observable change

Hawaiian sea life has already been heavily impacted by rising ocean temperatures, said Bruce Anderson, DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources administrator.

In 2014-15, Hawaii experienced the worst coral bleaching events in history. Nearly 90 percent of corals bleached in 2015, Anderson explained, and about 50 percent of the corals in West Hawaii died.

“We really can’t do a whole lot about world temperature changes,” he said. “Let’s face it, we’re on a trajectory that will probably continue as it is for at least a decade or two, even if we can start dramatically reducing emissions.”

Marine life itself can help corals, which are crucial elements of the underwater ecosystem, revive and flourish. But those species must be allowed to flourish themselves to produce this desired impact.

Anderson said creating marine reserves, limiting take on certain species and addressing sedimentation concerns will be key to sustaining corals at what may prove a historical tipping point for marine ecosystems.

Land and sea

Abby Frazier, of the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center, said scientific data points to two unmistakable trends in Hawaii’s climate at ocean level and above — the state is getting warmer and, for the most part, it’s getting drier.

“Temperatures across the state have been increasing … especially at the high elevations and nighttime temperatures,” she explained. “We’re (also) seeing declines in stream flow across the state. It’s likely related to decrease in groundwater, storage and recharge, and is indicative of decreasing water availability in the state.”

Frazier referenced a study that examined rainfall in Hawaii for the last 500 years. Over the last 160 years, the state has seen consistent decreases in rainfall.

Nowhere has that decline been more severe than West Hawaii Island, she said, and the dryness has led to increased risk of wildfires.

The ramifications for native species are many.

Frazier explained that a two-degree rise in temperature will shrink the native bird habitats at high elevations by 85 percent, as mosquitoes that serve as vectors for diseases like avian malaria will be able to live at higher elevations.

People will be affected as well.

Glenn said higher temperatures pose significant risks to elderly populations already prone to heat strokes. He also referenced the inevitability of refugees fleeing areas no longer livable due to the results of climate change.

The good news is that despite the readily observable, negative impacts of climate change already taking a toll on Hawaii, there remains some opportunity to address them.

“Projections are showing that we do have some time for managers to start taking actions to help protect these species,” said Frazier.

Her tentative optimism was echoed by others.

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“There is something we can do,” Anderson said.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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