The UN says that we have a 2030 deadline to stop the worst effects of climate change – and Hawaiian scholars are stepping up to the challenge

Wildfires, hurricanes, flooding – we’re seeing more and more examples of climate change’s effects every day, in news stories around the world. Last month, more than one million youth walked out of schools worldwide to urge governments to take action on climate. Mahdi, a 12-year old student at O‘ahu’s SEEQS public charter school, is on the cover of this issue of Ka Wai Ola. He gave a clear message to the hundreds gathered at the Damien statue on March 15.

“You know climate change is happening, and that it’s on its way to destroy human civilization. You know that you can do something about it. Are you waiting for someone else to act? If Hawai‘i can’t act, how can we expect the rest of the world to? It’s your job and responsibility to protect us. You have all the data, all the studies and all the solutions, to show that acting now would be so much cheaper and safer. All we need now is bold leadership. Leaders need to pass climate change laws that make a big difference. Do it for the people that elected you. Do it for your children. Do it for the future of humanity. Do it yourselves because no else is going to do it for you. And do it right now — we need to save the planet.”

Many are in agreement. Over the past several years, Hawai‘i’s state and municipal leaders have shifted their work to include climate change as a key issue. Hawai‘i now has a commitment to shift off of fossil fuels by 2045. The City & County of Honolulu has a new office which is working on making Oahu more resilient to climate change. And new panels and commissions have been created to build new policies. And major community efforts like the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage have used Hawai‘i’s history of oceanic voyaging to call attention to global warming.

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To celebrate Earth Day, Ka Wai Ola brought together two of our community’s top thinkers on climate to sit down with your new editor to discuss climate and our islands.

Photo: Dr. Kealoha Fox> Dr. Kealoha Fox is Ka Pou Kāko‘o Nui of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, charged with supporting the Executive Offices of its CEO. She directs agency initiatives for Mauli Ola (Native Hawaiian Health) that address the social determinants of well-being among the indigenous people of Hawai‘i. Dr. Fox also serves as academic faculty at the John A. Burns School of Medicine and College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is a Commissioner on the Hawai‘i Climate Change Mitigation And Adaptation Commission.

Photo: Haunani Kane

> Haunani Kane is a PhD graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her research focuses on the impact of sea level rise on Pacific islands. She is an assistant navigator on Hōkūle‘a.



Hussey: What impacts will climate change have on our Pacific islands?

Fox: There are a number of ways that Pacific Islands will be impacted by climate change. Some of those are changes in rainfall, with less rainfall available for drinking water. But when we do get rainfall, typically, it’ll be in heavier storms. This will cause flooding and increase temperature and will have a number of different effects on our daily lifestyle. I focus on sea level rise. So we have been talking a lot about planning for about a meter. So about three feet of sea level rise for the future. For Hawai‘i, three feet is roughly our high tide, so we can think about what the tide is like at its highest point. That’s going to become the new average, the daily average of the water surface. On high islands like Hawai‘i, Samoa, and Tahiti, the impact is going to be along the coastline.

By the end of the century, sea level rise could have much more drastic impacts not only on flooding, but also on aquifers. So groundwater becoming salty, and that becoming permanent. So you really have to start thinking about your daily lifestyle. But in low lying places, or places where you have large flat coastal areas, the impacts will really be a lot greater, right. The Marshall Islands are actually planning to build artificial islands, essentially raising the level up of their existing territory.

Hussey: I’d like to ask a provocative question. Why it is that climate is not often considered to be a “Hawaiian issue?”

Fox: I think climate change is a Hawaiian issue. And it’s an issue important to the lāhui, but I want to recognize that our lāhui, our people, face a tremendous amount of inequities right now.

And so when our people are worried about economic disparities – the exorbitant costs of housing and living in Hawai‘i – that shifts our perspective from think generationally to think about day to day survival.

We need to help our people view the climate change sector (and the work and the actions ahead) through the lens of our kupuna and our ancestors, which is very generationally-based, and not meant to be so proximal. Our kupuna had a much higher standard for our quality of life and for the betterment of our people. I believe that our kupuna and Ali‘i thought very far into the future about our survival. Part of the need is really just helping to go back to that mindset.

Hussey: In what ways can our ancestral knowledges be used to tackle this problem?

Fox: I would like to see the stewardship role of indigenous peoples, our wisdom, and our ancestral knowledge recognized as paramount for climate solutions and actions that Hawai‘i specifically should move forward with. The United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the World Health Organization, have each come out to say that indigenous peoples are critical, and that they are the true climate experts of this planet. We need to share those reports; we need to digest them in our organizations and in our communities. Our sustainability and resilience goals should cultivate culture as science.

Kane: We need to have a discussion about how climate change will affect our daily lives. There’s going to be a general trend to start to harden the shoreline to start to build sea walls, and to start to engineer structures along the coast to protect property. We should think about what that means for your ability to access the coast, or your ability to fish along the coast. Or how that is going to impact the natural movement of sand. It’s going to remove the beach; it’s going to potentially remove the wave from the place; it starts to impact people at their very core, to impact their ability to perform and to do things that they identify themselves by. That’s not the discussion that we’re having – we’re talking about so many degrees Celsius, but we’re not talking about how you are going to get to the hospital when there’s an emergency, or how you are going to go and catch fish for a while? Or how you will gather ‘opihi.

Fox: We’ve actually already felt the effects. And we have for generations. We know that 92, 93% of our population collapsed in a very short timeframe [shortly after contact]. A huge indicator of that population collapse was due to ma‘i palahalaha, i.e. infectious diseases that were not indigenous to Hawai‘i, but were brought here from some other place.

My research looks at infectious diseases brought from outside and the parallels between the degradation of our land, of our waters, of our air that have also been put upon us from the outside. There are a lot of similarities. This isn’t just a future oriented issue.

I try to remind decision makers that we already know what the repercussions are. The question is what are we going to do today to prevent this from happening again, not just to our plants, and not just to our ‘āina, but fundamentally what’s going to happen to the future of our people.

If you look at a mauli ola [health] worldview it’s not just about our physical health, it’s about our spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being. Once you spend time in any indigenous community around the world you see how intimately their soul and their livelihood is connected to their environment. When you bring that lens to the health arena it becomes clear that climate change is fundamentally a public health issue.

Let’s take sea level rise for example: sea level rise is one of Hawai‘i’s priorities for our climate commission. We know that sea level rise changes the water quality, so where you’re going to see more harmful bacteria in groundwater, in wastewater, in near shore waters; and then we know what happens when those are the same waters that we fish in or that our children go and swim in. Will our keiki be able to swim in those streams? Will they be able to fish or gather upon those reefs?
We have kupuna — Mac Poepoe, Ed Wendt, Emmet Aluli — who are telling us that this is a part of their practices and their kilo [observation ]– skills as loea, or skilled masters, for our people. They share with us that our history is not an artifact; our history is actually a prophecy. And that we can already see the shifts when you can combine it with rigorous world class science. I think that’s where Hawai‘i can fundamentally lead the world in what climate action can positively look like, from a community-based, culturally-appropriate lens.

Hussey: Haunani, in your research, are their elements of indigenous knowledge that we can call upon now?

Kane: For my research, I study atolls and how they form. These low lying islands are composed entirely of rubble of cora, sand, shells and hard pieces of algae that are deposited from the reef. So in order for your island to be healthy, your reef must be healthy. We have an ‘Ölelo No‘eau that describes that: “he pūko‘a kani ‘āina.” It talks about how an island grows from the reef. We’re relearning that knowledge. But we’re learning how to apply it in today’s world, in today’s issues.

Fox: It’s a process of reclaiming. But it is so exciting because it’s also a process of confirmation that we have arrived in time and space exactly where I think our kūpuna wanted us to be. And now it’s upon us – how do we want to move forward? What will the next 150 years look like? That is where we are right now. Not for 10 years from now, not for the next generation to deal with. I believe it’s on us right now.

Hussey: Yes – this is an important moment.

Fox: We see that with the youth movement. I am tremendously inspired by these youth all around the world that are calling us out and forcing us to the table as decision makers, as mākua, as leaders. I would stand beside them any day. If we can’t listen or march with them, then I think we should fundamentally shift who of us should be a part of the decision-making table. They are so inspiring to me. As adults, we have to wake up and we have to listen and we have to start “the doing.”