- Special Projects
Sam Lemmo is ready for Hawaii to take its effort to combat climate change to the next level.
The head of the state Office of Coastal and Conservation Lands wants the Legislature to empower the executive branch so it can address the myriad threats facing Hawaii when it comes to global warming.
That means making temporary institutions permanent, like the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission. It means updating laws to reflect the latest projections of rising sea levels, more hurricanes, shifting rainfall patterns and hotter weather. And it means money for technical services that enable agencies to do detailed vulnerability assessments and develop programs that actively deal with these issues.
“We need a Climate 3.0 now,” Lemmo said. “Then we can begin the slow process of digging out of this mess.”
Lawmakers have moved a suite of climate-related bills forward this session, which reached its midpoint this week. Several other measures have died, such as mandating an assessment of the environmental impacts of tourism, but more than two dozen have cleared the House or Senate.
The deadline for bills to cross over from one chamber to the other is Thursday. Measures that didn’t make the cut are technically dead this session but can be taken up again next year. It’s also possible to revive them by stuffing their contents into other bills in the coming weeks through legislative maneuvering.
Lemmo considers Act 83, which the Legislature passed in 2014, to be the Hawaii version of Climate 1.0.
When then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed it, he said it provided “a road map for Hawaii to be able to deal with the questions of climate change and global warming.” It created an interagency committee to assess the effects of sea level rise in particular.
Climate 2.0 came in 2017 when the Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. David Ige, to ratchet that work up a notch. It expanded strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and aligned Hawaii with the goals adopted in the Paris Agreement. It also renamed the committee the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission.
But there is uncertainty about the future of the commission, co-chaired by the heads of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Office of Planning. The commission is set to terminate July 1, 2023, and funding expires for its sole coordinator position in June.
Other environmental programs that would help the state adapt to a changing climate and mitigate its many effects are similarly in search of additional funding. The DLNR has asked for more money to fight increasingly destructive wildfires, rebuild coral reefs that are bleaching from warmer ocean waters and respond to biosecurity threats in watersheds and native forests.
“I want to implore the legislators to trust us — give us the opportunity to take it to the next level with implementation,” Lemmo said.
To many, the climate commission’s work has only begun. The 20-member group has adopted a landmark sea level rise report, which includes online mapping tools for the public and state agencies to use for planning. In November, it unanimously called on the Legislature to pass a carbon tax to incentivize people to change their habits for the planet’s well-being.
The House and Senate have killed bills to make the coordinator position permanent and further fund the commission’s work. Case has asked for $205,000 for the position and planning and administration costs for the commission.
It’s something that Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and his counterpart in the House, Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, will hash out as they work on the overall state spending plan.
Dela Cruz said he supports the concept but would rather work on broad-based policies to change the culture and regulatory practices around climate change than hire one person to advocate for the issue.
“I have mixed feelings about these positions,” he said Wednesday.
Still, he and Luke have shepherded through several bills, with costs still to be determined, that approach climate change challenges from a variety of angles.
On the Senate side, the biggest is a proposed carbon tax — a sweeping environmental policy reform that would affect virtually everyone in Hawaii.
Senate Bill 1463, introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads and six colleagues, unanimously passed the 25-member chamber. It was transmitted to the 51-member House on Tuesday.
It’s the only version of a carbon tax still alive. Two House bills, far different than Rhoads’ proposal, died without a hearing. One related measure, House Bill 1584, is still moving forward but it only calls for a study by the University of Hawaii.
SB 1463 would replace the environmental response, energy and food security tax — commonly known as the barrel tax — with a carbon emissions tax equivalent to $6.25 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels sold by a distributor to any retail dealer or end user of the fuel, other than a refiner. It would be paid by the distributor.
It has received lukewarm support from environmental groups and state agencies. Concerns remain over its regressiveness and effect on highway funds, which depend on money from the barrel tax.
The Tax Foundation of Hawaii, led by Tom Yamachika, testified last month that the social change the tax encourages may help stave off the dire consequences of global warming. But it cautioned that its constituents are worried less about the end of the world than the end of next week.
“Will their paychecks be enough to pay the rent, keep the lights on, or feed the family?” Yamachika said. “If the cost of simply driving to work from the suburbs is horrible now, just wait until the tax kicks in.”
Yamachika warned that businesses will pass on any increased costs to consumers to continue providing their products and services.
“If you think the hammer of a carbon tax will fall most heavily on huge, faceless corporations like the electric company, the airlines, or the shippers, think again,” he said. “Our already astronomical cost of living could head further up into the stratosphere.”
Yamakchika did recognize that the bill is revenue-neutral. Increased taxes on carbon-related entities would be offset elsewhere. But he’s worried the tax rates would change over time.
Hawaiian Electric Co. estimates that the carbon tax could add more than $19 million in costs each year to customers across the islands. Scott Seu, HECO spokesman, said in his testimony last month that the company supports doing a study first.
The Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, which has made a carbon tax a top priority this session, suggested amending the bill. The group proposed drastically increasing the price per ton of CO2 for all fossil fuels, increasing it steadily till the state meets its net zero emissions goal by 2045, and giving a dividend to consumers to offset the disproportionate impact on low- to moderate-income residents.
The bill now rests with the House, which will refer it to committees to consider in the coming days.
“It’s Hawaii’s attempt to get its foot in the door to initiate a carbon tax or pricing scheme,” Lemmo said.
Lawmakers are trying to figure out how which roads, homes, hotels and businesses should be set back farther from the ocean and which ones should be protected from rising seas, increasing floods and other impacts.
House Bill 549, introduced by Rep. Nicole Lowen and 15 fellow House members, would require new developments to plan for the impacts of projected sea level rise and prohibit development in areas significantly affected.
The measure, which cleared the chamber unanimously, highlights the inadequacies of the current coastal zone management policies and regulations with respect to the protection of beaches. It would work to strengthen efforts to conserve beaches while also reducing shorefront communities’ exposure to hazard.
House Bill 1487, which also passed unanimously, creates a shoreline pilot project to develop a plan to protect urban Honolulu from the acute impacts of climate change. It’s about flood-proofing the urban core.
It underscores how a direct hit from a hurricane — severe storms are increasing in frequency due to climate change — could cost an estimated $40 billion in damage to Hawaii’s infrastructure and economy.
The bill, introduced by Lowen and Rep. Chris Lee, calls on the climate commission to plan for protection of low-lying areas between the Honolulu airport and Diamond Head. “Protection compartments” along that stretch would include flood-protection zones, a continuous shoreline path that could be used for emergencies, and steps to make each area self-reliant if it became isolated.
A separate measure that would have directed the climate commission to determine areas in each county to designate for either armoring or managed retreat died last month, but elements of it are still alive in other bills.
Senate Bill 644 had cleared its first hurdle, with Sens. Kai Kahele and Mike Gabbard moving it through their Agriculture and Environment and Water and Land committees. The committees found it “imperative” for the Legislature to start implementing the climate commission’s recommendations from the sea-level rise report, which include planning and funding coastal adaptations to sea-level rise now to avoid crises in the next decade.
In a joint committee report, Kahele and Gabbard said identification and determination of shoreline armoring and retreat should be prioritized.
Lawmakers are moving on another coastal matter backed by the climate commission.
A couple bills would require some form of mandatory disclosure when selling coastal property that is vulnerable to sea level rise exposure areas as designated by the Climate Commission.
Senate Bill 1126 and Senate Bill 1340 crossed over to the House, which did not move forward with its version of the measure.
“These bills are critically important for complementing our adaptation effort,” Lemmo said.
One of the broader policy bills that’s moving forward this session is Dela Cruz’s Senate Bill 393, which amends the Coastal Zone Management Act.
Lemmo said he particularly likes how it identifies sea level rise now as one of the coastal hazards that must be considered.
He said it also amends language regarding shoreline armoring to improve protection of sandy beaches by putting the onus on the regulatory agency and the applicants to prove that what they are proposing will not have negative consequences.
Another bill that could have broad implications is also still alive. House Bill 461 directs the climate commission to prioritize infrastructure and identify vulnerable roads, bridges and other properties based on exposure to sea level rise. It also calls for funding the climate coordinator position.
“I’m sort of pleasantly surprised at this point with respect to what I see in play still,” Lemmo said. “I’m also pleasantly surprised that they have taken our amendments and have incorporated many of them into the measures.”
Lawmakers are also looking at climate change from an organizational standpoint. House Bill 1586 would create a new Department of the Environment, incorporating the Office of Environmental Quality Control (now under the Department of Health) and state energy office (now under the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism).
Bills to create a statewide sustainability division within the Office of Planning and create a Hawaii Energy and Climate Change Office are also still alive, though the latter was amended to no longer include the words “climate change” in the title.
Measures to mandate an update to the Hawaii Sustainability 2050 Plan and prioritize nature-based solutions are also still alive.
While Hawaii is moving forward with its legal requirement to producing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045, the concept of becoming carbon-neutral by the same time looks more difficult.
Shifting the transportation sector, which accounts for about a quarter of the state’s fossil fuel use, to clean energy has run into conflicting policy proposals.
There are bills, for instance, to make it more affordable for residents to install electric vehicle charging stations at their homes. But there are also bills adding a surcharge to registration fees for electric vehicles and ending programs to incentivize their use, like free parking.
Sen. Russell Ruderman took up the issue on the Senate floor Wednesday when Senate Bill 409 came up. The measure, in its latest form, adds a $15 surcharge for EV registration.
Supporters of the bill, introduced by Sen. Lorraine Inouye, argue that people who drive electric vehicles or hybrids pay less in gas taxes so they are not paying their fair share for the upkeep of highways.
Ruderman and other critics of the bill point out that electric vehicles and hybrids have far less impact on the roads. They’re lighter than SUVs, for instance, and the heaviest trucks that cause the vast majority of damage.
He questioned instituting a policy that de-incentivizes switching to electric and hybrid vehicles, which only account for 1 percent of the registered automobiles in Hawaii.
“I realize that most of you folks today are not going to change your vote based on what I say,” Ruderman said. “But I’m asking you that next time we are faced with a decision of whether we are to take action on the greatest crisis facing our generation or not, that you turn over a new leaf and prioritize climate change as a matter of public policy.”
Ruderman and Sen. Donna Mercado Kim cast the lone “no” votes. The measure now heads to the House.
Lemmo said he recognizes the balance that lawmakers must find in tackling climate change.
“Everyone is feeling the burn of climate change, and feeling the pressure not to go so far that it damages our ability to meet our requirements day in and day out,” he said.
But he underscored the mounting pressure to act now, and the mounting scientific evidence to support that.
A study published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change found there is a 99.9999 percent change that humans are the cause of global warming. That’s the “gold standard” statistical measure for certainty.
“I’m really just hopeful that we can make some progress on the adaptation and mitigation fronts,” Lemmo said.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?