Photo: Amphibious landing practice at Kāneʻohe Marine Corps Air Station
Amphibious landing practice at Kāneʻohe Marine Corps Air Station at Mokapū, Oʻahu, during RIMPAC 2004. - Photo: Jane West, US Navy

By ʻImiloa Borland and Wayne Tanaka

This June, Hawaiʻi welcomed over 2,000 delegates from 27 nations for the 13th annual Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPAC). The 10-day FestPAC celebration showcased Oceanic art, music, and culture while creating space for participants to discuss their most pressing issues, including climate destabilization and sea level rise.

Currently, another international convening is taking place in Hawaiʻi. From June 27 through the month of July, military forces from nearly 30 nations are gathering in and around our islands for the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” military exercises (RIMPAC).

Photo: The USS Ronald Regan (foreground) with international warships
The USS Ronald Regan (foreground) leads international warships in a photo exercise north of Hawaiʻi in 2010. – Photo: Dylan McCord, US Navy

As in previous years, RIMPAC 2024 seeks to allow participating nations to foster “cooperative relationships” and promote “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” through training exercises such as amphibious landings, anti-submarine drills, and another SINKEX, wherein a decommissioned naval vessel is bombarded until it sinks and joins an unknown number of other similarly destroyed ships on the deep ocean seabed.

Notably, RIMPAC 2024 will also incorporate its largest- ever disaster relief drills – an appropriate inclusion, given the increase in global climate-related disasters we have experienced.

Glaring examples in the past two years include the 2022 floods in Pakistan that killed more than 1,700 people and upended the lives of 33 million more – half of them children; the battering of Guåhan (Guam) by Typhoon Mawar that left thousands without power for weeks; the May 2024 flooding of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul that killed more than 150 people, displaced 600,000 others, and contaminated rivers, food, and water sources for a population of 10 million; and, here at home, last year’s horrifyingly tragic Lahaina firestorm.

However, these recent climate-driven events beg the question as to whether RIMPAC, and our global militaries, are sufficiently focused on the greatest threat to “security” that any nation in the history of the world has ever faced.

There is near-universal scientific consensus that the numerous natural disasters we have recently witnessed are just an early, and relatively mild, warning sign of what lies ahead. Earth at risk: an urgent call to end the era of destruction and forge a just and sustainable future, a report compiled by Hawaiʻi’s own Dr. Charles “Chip” Fletcher, Dr. Kamanamaikalani Beamer, Dr. Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, and retired Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson, among others, suggests that our Earth is at the brink of almost unimaginable devastation and that radical shifts in how we treat our planet – and each other – are the only way to save our children and grandchildren from an earthly purgatory.

As Fletcher’s report suggests, paying heed to the numerous warning signs can help push us in the right direction.

Prior to the possible displacement of an estimated 1.2 billion people by 2050, annual life-threatening heat waves impacting 75% of humanity, chronic agricultural failures leading to mass starvation on an unprecedented scale, and the extinction of a quarter of the Earth’s macroscopic species, there will be numerous and multi-faceted “wake up” calls.

These include disrupted global supply chains, the regular inundation of low-lying coastal cities, deadly outbreaks of new (and formerly eradicated) diseases, increased regional conflicts, and worsening and more frequent natural disasters, among others.

Hawaiʻi has already experienced our own share of alarm bells: farms and businesses have repeatedly flooded, oceanfront homes have washed away, homeowners insurance premiums have skyrocketed due to climate-driven disasters, our beaches are vanishing, our coral reefs are bleaching, and we may soon witness the extinction of our last remaining forest birds on Maui and Kauaʻi due to disease-carrying, heat-loving mosquitoes invading their ever-warming upland habitats.

Whether and how the participating RIMPAC militaries, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in particular, will respond to the science and signs of impending destruction – beyond disaster relief drills – could have a significant impact on the future of our islands, and our planet.

But at this point, the current response from the U.S. military appears sorely insufficient.

While acknowledging climate change as a threat to national and worldwide security and stability, the U.S. military continues to be the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, and, like RIMPAC, its climate plans focus largely on maintaining operational capacity (e.g., contending with unreliable oil supply lines and flooded bases) instead of truly addressing our existential crisis head-on.

Despite the existential need for “rapid and legitimate decarbonization” as called for by the Fletcher report, the U.S. military has no apparent plans to lead other nations’ defense forces in the climate fight, commit its immense resources to develop and share decarbonization advancements with the civilian and global communities, or consider how RIMPAC-type exercises and posturing directly and indirectly drive up the carbon footprint of both allies and adversaries alike.

The military’s environmental record in Hawaiʻi alone, when contrasted against the pivots urged by climate scientists, also indicates the dire need for major transformative shifts.

Reports of elevated lead in Puʻuloa, PFAS, unexploded ordnance, and other contaminants across our pae ʻāina, from Kahoʻolawe to Pōhakuloa and most recently at Kapūkakī (Red Hill) do not reflect the reciprocity and kinship with nature that may be our best, last, chance at a hopeful future.

Moreover, the sociocultural baggage associated with RIMPAC – from its advancement of Western imperialism to the trafficking of Native Hawaiian women and girls – also fly in the face of the global investments in Indigenous worldviews and gender justice that have been identified as key to our collective survival.

To call on the U.S. military to declare war on the climate crisis may seem like a tall order, considering these entrenched institutional challenges. But it is a call that scientists believe must be heeded by every governmental and social entity – including the institution tasked with defending us.

Otherwise, RIMPAC and other military “exercises” are mere distractions from a fate of death and destruction it is only hastening for us all.

ʻImiloa Borland has kuleana to Moanalua, Hālawa, and ke awalau o Puʻuloa. She is a graduate of Punahou and The New School in New York City. Her work has focused on the power of aloha ʻāina as a tool to demilitarize Hawaiʻi, Oceania, and beyond. Wayne Chung Tanaka is the executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and a former OHA public policy manager.