Honolulu’s fledgling Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency may have to address sea level rise and other effects of global warming with fewer resources if the City Council approves proposed major budget cuts for the office voters created less than two years ago.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell asked the council for about $1.15 million for the office of seven employees for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. 

Councilman Ernie Martin, who became the council chairman in March, wants to cut that by almost half. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday

Councilman Trevor Ozawa, the newly appointed Budget Committee chair, has proposed more modest cuts amounting to $166,000.

“I definitely support the office,” Ozawa said. “We’re not cutting anything that is essential to the core mission of the office.”

The Budget Committee meets Wednesday for its first round of amendments to Caldwell’s fiscal year 2019 budget.

The king tides in 2017 offered a look at challenges the island will face as sea levels rise. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Honolulu voters created the climate change office through a charter amendment in 2016.

Grants from the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, provide some funding for the office in addition to city funds.

The office dodged similar proposals for big budget cuts last year.

Martin’s proposed cuts would reduce the office’s staff by two and eliminate some of its funding for research, including $200,000 to pay a private consultant to audit the city’s energy use and recommend ways to increase energy efficiency.

Joshua Stanbro heads the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, which voters created through a charter amendment in 2016. City and County of Honolulu

The audit would try to find “opportunities to save money for taxpayers and reduce our climate emissions,” said Joshua Stanbro, the office’s director.

In March the city launched a 10-year project converting streetlights to light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures, which use less energy. The project cost the city $46.6 million but is expected to save taxpayers $5 million annually.

A seemingly innocuous $8,000 Ozawa proposed to cut from the office for “fees for membership and registration” would be a headache for the staff, Stanbro said.

The money funds subscriptions to databases, including an international database that municipalities use to report their greenhouse gas emissions, and another one that allows staff at the Honolulu office to find environmentally friendly policies other cities adopted.

“Rather than reinventing that wheel ourselves or building an entire computer model that may not be compatible with other jurisdictions’, it’s much easier and more cost effective for us to just join the larger network of folks who have already developed those protocols,” Stanbro said.

Ozawa said his and other council members’ proposed amendments that will be discussed Wednesday offer department heads an opportunity to defend the budget.

“We want people to show what they’re doing and give everybody an opportunity to tell taxpayers what they’re spending their money on,” he said.

As the administration of President Donald Trump backs away from The Paris Agreement, under which countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Stanbro said the onus falls on states and local governments to step up and continue the agreement’s goals.

All four of Hawaii’s county mayors and Gov. David Ige signed on to the Paris accord last year.

In Honolulu, adhering to the accord starts with creating an inventory of how much greenhouse gases the population on Oahu emits and developing a plan to bring those emissions down.

The Honolulu Climate Change Commission works with the office to create that plan. The five-member commission is a group of mostly academics who translate the latest climate change research into policy recommendations for the city.

The cuts would affect the commission as well as the office, says Charles Fletcher, the commission’s vice chair.

“When there’s high pressure on our budget it’s easy to cut new initiatives like this,” Fletcher said. “But climate change is going to be a major game changer and although people may not be widely aware of the negative impacts yet, the scientific community is of one voice that climate change is going to be a massively disruptive process.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author