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On the campaign trail, he pledged to dismantle clean energy plans, pull out of an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions and ease regulations on coal, oil and gas production as part of his plan to “Make America Great Again.”
What Trump will actually do after he takes the reins of government in January from President Barack Obama remains to be seen. But nonprofit groups, lawmakers, government officials and others say Hawaii needs to remain vigilant about protecting its environment over the next four years.
They say that means lawyering up to fight court battles, empowering citizens, reminding local decision-makers of their authority and investing more resources into state and county agencies that can backstop changes Trump and a GOP-controlled House and Senate may make at the federal level.
“The state has often felt like it can just leave it to the feds,” said David Henkin, a Hawaii-based attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. “They’re not going to be able to pass the buck anymore. It’s time for them to step up.”
There’s a similar call for citizens to engage in the political process, government rulemaking and other activities that affect the world around them.
“The fox has taken over the henhouse,” Henkin said. “So if we want eggs, we’re going to have to take care of our own henhouse.”
Until now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency have jumped in when the state has fallen short and have partnered with Hawaii to ensure healthy water and air quality, safe wastewater systems and protections for endangered species.
The EPA recently spurred state health officials to post signs warning the public of chronically polluted beaches, for instance, and fined the state and counties thousands of dollars for illegal cesspools.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is providing grants to help protect Hawaii’s honeybees and in September added 49 plants and animals in the islands to those listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act — to name just a couple examples of the agency’s involvement in the Aloha State.
Given that level of federal involvement, there’s concern over Trump directing Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic, to lead the EPA transition team, not to mention talk of Sarah Palin, who does not believe in human-caused global warming, as secretary of the interior.
Suzanne Case, who heads the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said last week that it’s “too early to tell” exactly what a Trump presidency will mean for Hawaii.
If Trump succeeds in pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord — an agreement reached in December among 195 countries to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius — that could hurt global efforts to reduce the worst effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, stronger storms and ocean acidification.
Hawaii is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels, with the vast majority of the state’s 1.4 million residents living near the coasts — not to mention billions of dollars worth of infrastructure.
The islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. There were a record-breaking 15 named tropical systems in the Central Pacific last year.
Hiroyuki Murakami, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University, told the New York Times in September that Hawaii has been having more active hurricane seasons in large part due to natural subtropical warming but also because of human-caused climate change.
He said global warming is expected to increase the frequency of active hurricane seasons in the Pacific, but natural variability will still play a role.
“In a world where the actions of the federal government are uncertain, it just emphasizes the importance for us to do our part,” Case said. “It’s a call to forge on and do the best we can to steward our natural resources.”
DLNR’s budget for this year is roughly $140 million and includes about $26 million in federal funding.
It’s unclear at this point what federal programs or services might get cut under Trump and a Republican Congress. But officials are bracing for fewer grants and one-off cash infusions from the feds that have been used to tackle issues such as invasive species.
In August, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and the Department of the Interior announced $497,000 in extra federal funding to fight a fungus that is killing native ohia forests, particularly on the Big Island.
Interior Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kristen Sarri called Rapid Ohia Death a “biosecurity issue that warrants urgent actions.”
“It threatens to leave Hawaii’s forests, ecosystems, watersheds and commerce in a vulnerable state,” she said in a statement. “Agencies must work together to generate the science needed to support decisive decisions.”
Case said Hawaii is already committed to protecting its watersheds, restoring nearshore fisheries, improving biosecurity, growing more local food and increasing renewable energy under Gov. David Ige’s sustainability initiatives.
She declined to share what additional positions or funding she may seek in the budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, to help shore up any potential loss in federal money. The budget proposal is still being hammered out with the governor and will be unveiled in mid-December when he submits it to the Legislature.
Ige said through his spokeswoman, Cindy McMillan, that it’s too soon for him to speculate on Trump’s positions and policies or what the state may do in response.
Aside from state policies, Case and others underscored that Hawaii has strong environmental laws on the books and has been increasing funding in programs to protect its natural resources.
The Legislature approved nearly $5 million for conservation efforts and protection against invasive species in the 2017 budget, for example.
State Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the House Environmental Protection and Energy Committee, said Hawaii’s constitution is among the nation’s strongest when it comes to protecting the environment.
The state constitution says, in part, “Each person has the right to a clean and healthful environment, as defined by laws relating to environmental quality, including control of pollution and conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources.”
“I don’t think a Trump administration will be able to change that because our land, our water is part of who we are here in Hawaii,” Lee said. “An assault on that is an assault on the people of Hawaii.”
He and others highlighted the state’s commitment to produce 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045 — the most ambitious renewable energy mandate in the country.
“We’re at a point in history where the fossil fuel industry is relying on billions of dollars in subsidies and we’re actually seeing the renewable technologies begin to displace traditional fossil fuels,” Lee said. “The only way that industry is going to remain competitive in the long term is if politicians beholden to those industries continue to subsidize them and protect them at the expense of cheaper alternatives and at the expense of consumers.”
Trump’s energy plan calls for opening onshore and offshore lands and waters to oil, gas and coal production, easing regulations on the coal industry and scrapping Obama’s Climate Action Plan and Clean Power Plan, which he says increase monthly electric bills by double-digits “without any measurable effect on Earth’s climate.”
“The Trump Administration is firmly committed to conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats,” Trump says on his official website. “America’s environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.”
Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and professor of economics, said renewable energy technologies are advancing and subsequently driving costs down so quickly that it may be soon possible for those emerging industries to stand on their own without federal support.
In the meantime, he said, there could be a surge in solar and wind projects to take advantage of federal tax credits while they still exist.
Bonham and others see market forces at work when it comes to the coal industry, which Trump has pledged to save from ruin.
“Coal is failing because natural gas is so cheap,” Bonham said. “Coal jobs are not coming back just as manufacturing jobs are not coming back.”
But he is worried about Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress reducing investments in renewable energy research and development, such as battery storage systems that let homeowners and businesses store energy created by intermittent renewable power sources like wind or solar.
“The research community is pretty worried, and justifiably so — the Republican Party doesn’t believe in the science,” Bonham said. “You have the perfect storm for trying to dismantle the regulatory environment that tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tries to support the R&D behind doing more renewables.”
Bonham said that won’t end progress that’s been made on that front, but could slow it.
“It’s not scary about economic growth in the next five years. It’s scary about our kids,” he said, referring to how federal policy changes and climate change could affect the next generation.
It’s clear to Bonham that the environmental policies Trump and GOP members in Congress have touted are financially driven.
“Follow the money,” he said. “Why would every country in the world except North Korea and the Republican Party agree that we need to do something about climate change? Where is the financial incentive?”
Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaiian Islands manager, pointed at how “Planet at the Crossroads” was the theme of the quadrennial International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress held in September in Honolulu.
“This is 10,000 of the best scientists and environmental advocates in the world,” he said. “These are not alarmists. These are people who know the most about our climate and the conditions and state we are in right now.”
Coleman and others see a chance for Hawaii to stand up as a national leader in protecting the environment and for citizens to increase their involvement in government.
“We’ve been asleep at the wheel,” he said. “We’ve had this mantra of ‘big government is the problem,’ but where has that gotten us?”
Surfrider, like the Sierra Club and other environmental nonprofits, relies on citizen science and grassroots activism.
Surfrider, for instance, routinely does its own water quality testing that it then shares with local governments. In Hawaii, that effort recently led to the state posting signs at two chronically polluted beaches, and there are plans to post dozens more in other areas.
“We need to demand what we want from our government and then work with them to make it happen,” Coleman said.
Marti Townsend, who heads Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter, said she’s still assessing how Trump’s presidency may affect Hawaii’s environment.
She cited Red Hill in Central Oahu, where the U.S. Navy has underground fuel tanks that leaked roughly 30,000 gallons in January 2014. There’s an agreement between the EPA, state Department of Health and Navy to make the tanks safer.
“The EPA has been held out as the safeguard of the public’s interest in addressing leaks from this facility,” Townsend said. “If the Trump administration follows through on the promise to dismantle the EPA then Oahu needs to have its own mechanisms in place to ensure our water supply is protected. And we should extend that precautionary approach to all of the authorizations we currently rely on as delegated from the EPA.”
Scott Glenn, director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said Hawaii has been weaning itself from the federal government since U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye died in 2012.
Inouye, who chaired the Senate Committee on Appropriations, funneled millions of dollars to Hawaii during his long tenure.
Glenn said the past few years have helped Hawaii relearn how to be more reliant on itself and less on the federal government.
But now more than ever, he said elected officials will need to be standing up for the environment.
“It’s not enough to say nice words at big events,” Glenn said. “That’s where the political leadership comes in.”
He said his office has already been reviewing proposed projects through the lens of climate change.
But in other states and at the federal level, Glenn anticipates government officials becoming more reactive rather than proactive when it comes to climate adaptation measures.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, an environmentalist who owns a chain of organic food stores on the Big Island, said Hawaii has more to lose — and gain — than most states.
He noted the tourism industry depends on a healthy environment, but that the islands are more susceptible to the effects of climate change.
“What we could do about it, if we have the will, is redouble our own efforts and replace some federal funding to keep programs going,” Ruderman said, adding that he expects severe cuts in federal funding of environmental programs.
But there’s one thing the senator is far more worried about than funding cuts.
“My greatest fear of this presidency is a nuclear war,” Ruderman said. “That certainly would be an environmental disaster.”
Henkin said Earthjustice, like other organizations and citizen groups, does not plan to sit idly by, and that it is twice as big as it was when Geoge W. Bush became president in 2001.
“We’re going to be fighting in the courts, we’re going to be fighting in Congress, we’re going to be fighting at the state level and make sure we don’t start backsliding,” he said.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune has been sending one email blast out after another and the group is doing a dollar-for-dollar match of donations to “fight back against Trump.”
“If you’re concerned about the effects that a Trump presidency could have, you need to join organizations that care,” Townsend said. “We want to see communities directly engaged.”
Coleman said Surfrider is hosting its free annual “Civics Is Sexy” workshop Jan. 21 at the Capitol for the public to learn about the legislative process and how to get involved in issues.
“What this election has shown more than anything is citizens have to work harder to take back their government,” he said. “I hope there’s this reawakened sense of citizen engagement.”