A future Honolulu under the effects of climate change looks bleak, but some experts think the city could avoid the worst-case scenarios by creating an office that helps coordinate climate change mitigation and adaptation policies across agencies.
The city Charter Commission, which convenes once every 10 years, is crafting a proposal that would ask voters in November to create an Office of Climate Change and Sustainability with a five-person advisory commission.
A draft proposal would establish the new office underneath the Managing Director’s Office. It would track the potential impacts of climate change on city facilities; coordinate city policies to increase community preparedness and protect the city’s beaches, infrastructure and economy; and integrate sustainability into city programs, among other responsibilities.
The idea, which is still under review, is based on proposals submitted this year by former permitting director and current Charter Commission member Cheryl Soon, and University of Hawaii Law School Professor Maxine Burkett.
“Human beings have a hard time reacting to a slow-moving disaster like this.” — George Atta, Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting
Burkett specializes in environmental law and climate change policy, and says while many Honolulu officials seem to recognize that global warming is a problem, the city appears to be behind the curve when it comes to addressing it.
Since 2009, Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability has tripled the city’s recycling rate and planted 120,000 trees. A similar office in New York City is working to revamp building codes for disaster preparedness and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Mayors of coastal cities have increasingly been taking the lead on climate change initiatives.
“Mayor Caldwell has always been a strong supporter of climate change mitigation,” spokesman Andrew Pereira wrote in an email Friday. He noted how the administration has been incorporating climate change considerations into its plans for development around rail stations in Kalihi and Pearlridge.
In addition, the city has applied for funding from the Environmental Protection Agency for climate change resiliency initiatives, and has asked University of Hawaii scientists to present the latest research on sea level rise in urban Honolulu to city officials in May, Pereira wrote.
Still, the city doesn’t have anyone coordinating climate change considerations across agencies. And although the City Council approved $2 million for a study on the issue last year, the administration hasn’t moved forward with it because of the way it was funded.
“Bond funding of this nature is only appropriate for hard assets that will last over 25 years, not studies such as the one proposed,” Pereira said. “Therefore, it would be inappropriate and against city policy to release the $2 million in funding proposed in this line item.”
Department of Planning and Permitting Director George Atta said in a phone interview that the city has been adding general statements about climate change to its plans. But it hasn’t implemented any specific changes, such as shoreline setbacks, in part because scientific projections are uncertain, he said.
Atta said he thinks the proposed office would help directors consider the long-term impacts of their decisions instead of getting bogged down by daily responsibilities. Planning for the impact of sea level rise on Waikiki and the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is especially critical, he said.
“Human beings have a hard time reacting to a slow-moving disaster like this,” he said.
Dolan Eversole, a coastal geologist at the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, agrees.
“It’s kind of like this slow train that’s coming at us from far away and we’re standing in the middle of the track and we see it coming,” he said. “And the question is, are we going to divert the train or step out of the way?”
Necessary Or Duplicative?
At the state level, there already is some coordination regarding climate change. Leo Asuncion, director at the state Office of Planning, is co-leading an interagency climate change adaptation committee along with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The group, which includes Atta and other county planning directors, is studying Hawaii’s vulnerability to sea level rise and plans to present a report to the Legislature by the end of next year.
“If we don’t start taking a step forward in a lot of areas, we are going to start paying the highest price for our complacency.” — Chip Fletcher, scientist
The Office of Planning has also partnered with the city Department of Planning and Permitting to obtain a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to figure out how to upgrade building codes to include climate change adaptation.
Despite the existing inter-governmental coordination, Asuncion believes it would make sense to create a climate change office at the city level because the state tries not to interfere with local matters.
“We give a lot of leeway to the counties to figure out what’s best for them,” he said. “We’re not going to go in to say, ‘You’re not doing enough, or you’re doing too much.’ That is really for the county to decide.”
The Office of Planning even tries not to testify before the City Council, Asuncion said.
Maintaining infrastructure and approving new developments are both largely city responsibilities that are ripe for climate change-related planning, said Soon, from the Charter Commission.
“As long as it’s not assigned to anyone … we’re not going to be prepared,” she said.
What About The Money?
In the mid-1990s, Soon served as director of the city permitting department. Back then, she never thought about climate change.
Over the years, after observing the destructive impacts of storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, Soon came to realize the overwhelming threat that climate change poses for Honolulu and the world.
“We’re not going to change the global atmosphere, but the impacts on an island state are so clear… I don’t see how we can do anything but go down this path,” she said. “Ten years from now we may look at this and say, ‘Well that was pretty modest.'”
But establishing an Office of Climate Change would require taxpayer dollars that are already stretched to cover the rising cost of the city’s $6 billion rail project.
During budget talks this spring that are ongoing, City Council members have been hesitant to grow government, balking at the idea of funding a new, $477,000 real estate asset division that the mayor’s office says would facilitate the development of affordable housing.
Burkett said she knows of no cost estimate yet for the proposed climate change office and commission.
She thinks that by reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and by applying for both private and federal grants from organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the proposed office could help fund itself.
If the proposal doesn’t make it on the ballot this year, Caldwell could potentially create the office administratively. But the mayor hasn’t said yet whether he supports the idea: “The administration continues to examine both proposals,” Pereira wrote.
And without a stamp of approval from voters, it might be harder to obtain city funding for such an office, Soon said.
Scientist Chip Fletcher thinks taxpayers could end up paying a lot more later on if action isn’t taken soon. A recent study concluded that if carbon emissions continue at the current rate, sea level rise could approach 2 meters, which “would basically render Honolulu unlivable,” Fletcher said.
“Climate change has reached the point wherein it’s now an emergency, it’s a crisis,” he said. “If we don’t start taking a step forward in a lot of areas, we are going to start paying the highest price for our complacency.”
The Charter Commission is still accepting public testimony on the proposal. The deadline for the Charter Commission to finalize and submit proposed charter amendments to the City Clerk is Aug. 22.
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