State officials are touting Hawaii’s new policy to deal with the impacts of climate change, from sea-level rise to decreased stream flow.

But the 10 “priority guidelines” signed into law last week are at best just a step in the right direction. At worst, they’re a lot of feel-good language that compared to other states covers up a missed opportunity to take significant action to prepare for the inevitable.

The latest science predicts devastating effects on coastal communities and forest ecosystems alike. Rising sea levels could force beach developments to be abandoned. Less rainfall could mean less fresh water for Hawaii’s population.

This reality provided the impetus for the climate change adaptation policy, a concept increasing in popularity nationwide as states realize mitigation-only strategies won’t suffice.

But while other states, such as California and Washington, have already gone from policy to comprehensive strategy, Hawaii is only now laying the groundwork. California, for instance, has a 200-page strategic plan full of specifics like considering the effect of sea level rise on recreational shellfish harvesting.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has said Hawaii’s measure creates the framework to take action so the natural and built environments Hawaii depends upon are available for future generations.

“By adding climate adaptation to Hawaii’s planning system, we ensure that this issue will be considered in state and county budgetary, land use, and other decision-making processes,” he said in a statement earlier this month.

But Hawaii’s law doesn’t mandate the creation of a statewide strategy; it just urges planners to explore one. And there’s no apparent penalty for failing to follow any or all of the guidelines.

Planning Directors Supportive

County planning directors support the state’s new policy, but don’t expect to see much impact on a daily basis. They said implementation of specific strategies will come later but broad planning efforts incorporating some impacts of climate change are under way.

Kauai Planning Director Michael Dahilig said the county will consider climate adaption in the update of its General Plan, a guiding document revised every decade to reflect the long-term vision for the island.

“From a planning standpoint, I do think we need to be on top of it and be more proactive in integrating it into our planning theory,” he said. “But what this will look like from a functional planning standpoint, we don’t know right now. “

While the science is starting to coalesce among generally accepted theories, Dahilig said inconsistencies remain.

“When it comes down to zoning land, I don’t know whether I’m dealing with a sea level increase of 1 foot or 100 feet. We need the science on it,” he said. “But generally, we can still make some plans. Things on the shoreline should be elevated and more minimalistic. Our infrastructure should be closer to the mountains.”

Maui County’s General Plan 2030, adopted two years ago, has a goal of reducing the island’s contribution to global climate change.

The document contains a provision that says “prudent planning will consider projected sea-level rise as a variable in planning for each island.” Specifically, the plan notes that sea-level rise is expected to render some of the county’s land inaccessible in coming years.

Big Island and Honolulu planning directors supported the legislation in the broader version that passed.

“This bill would lay a framework and foundation to guide physical planning and help prioritize funding and future implementation actions to adapt to climate change,” Honolulu Planning Director David Tanoue said in his April 3 testimony.

Honolulu Deputy Planning Director Jiro Sumada says that the update to the Oahu General Plan, which is under way, may put more emphasis on climate change adaptation now that the state policy is established.

Sumada said the city Department of Planning and Permitting has already recognized climate change concerns at a broad policy level, such as in the updated Waianae and North Shore sustainable communities plans. The Waianae plan, for instance, says “all planning for these areas should consider both the known and potential effects of sea level rise.”

Specific Strategies Booted

A House version of the bill would have required the governing body or planning commission of each county to take into account a predicted sea-level rise of one foot by 2050 when reviewing certain permit applications.

Many ardent supporters of the bill — such as the governor, state planning office and county planning directors — attacked the amendment’s prescriptive language until lawmakers relented and restored the legislation to its original version.

Dave Arakawa, Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii executive director, similarly supported the bill’s more general guidelines but opposed it when it was changed to require planning directors to factor in one foot of sea level rise. He testified that the amendment would have adverse impacts and unnecessary costs to public works projects, private development and permit processes.

Big Island Planning Director B.J. Leithead Todd opposed the amendment due to its arbitrary nature and difficulty to administer.

Pro-business and building groups, like the Chamber of Commerce and Building Industry Association, went from lukewarm support to opposition when the amendment was added.

Shannon Wood of the Windward Ahupuaa Alliance was among the few to back a stronger statute. She said the legislation amounted to “mooshy, feel-good language that doesn’t really do anything to mitigate — or adapt — to what Hawaii is going to be like 40 years from now.”

The University of Hawaii “reluctantly” supported stripping the more restrictive requirement. UH professor Chip Fletcher, associate dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said the decision was made to save the rest of the bill, which was a collaborative effort.

“Halfway through the session we got our act together and realized this could kill the bill,” he said.

Policy May Aid Future Research

Having the state policy on the books could help UH secure grants to do more research, which in turn could lead to specific strategy recommendations, Fletcher said.

Climatologists may be able to undertake overdue studies for problems like ocean acidification or rising air temperatures that have been put off for lack of funding, he said.

Fletcher said the idea is to knock these climate-change problems off one by one with study groups. Then based on the science, policy and regulatory changes can be proposed.

“Major climate changes with the potential to impact Hawaii include warmer temperatures, decreased rainfall and stream flow, decreased rain intensity, and ocean warming and acidification,” he said in a statement.

Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning, said in a press release last week that long-term planning is required to increase the state’s ability to adjust to climate change.

“Investing today in moderating potential damage, identifying advantages and opportunities, and developing systems to cope with consequences, can save the state from losses and increased costs in the future,” he said.

Fletcher said there’s “very little assurance” that any planning director will follow the climate adaptation policy guidelines.

“With different people, you get different attitudes,” he said. “As planning planning directors come and go you find them implementing their discretionary authority in different ways. We’ll have to watch how this goes over the next couple years and revisit how each county is doing.”

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