Western society doesn’t have all the answers for the climate challenges confronting Hawaii and the rest of the world.

But island voices can help.

“We need to expand who is at the table,” University of Hawaii oceanography professor Rosie Alegado said Tuesday in a packed auditorium at the Hawaii Convention Center.

She was one of six women serving on the opening panel of the 26th Hawaii Conservation Conference. The hourlong talk, moderated by Kealoha Fox, a state Climate Commission member and executive manager to the CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, centered on their perceptions of climate change from a traditional Native Hawaiian cultural lens. 

Rosie Alegado, left, discusses climate change through a traditional Native Hawaiian cultural lens, Tuesday, at the Hawaii Conservation Conference. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Alegado, a member of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission, and the other panelists — scholars and scientists Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Haunani Kane, Kalei Nu’uhiwa and Noelani Puniwai — brought an empowering rather than defeatist attitude about the climate crisis.

“It’s not that we aren’t taking it seriously — we take it really damn seriously — but we’re not scared,” Alegado said. “We don’t have climate angst.”

She attributed this to an island mentality, in the sense of the role survival has long played. The need to always be prepared, be it for periods of political or environmental strife, and knowing that it truly takes a village.

“We can’t talk about things in our silos,” said Puniwai, a professor at the UH Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. “We all have to talk about things as a community. If our passion is all the same, then we’ll get to our goal.”

She highlighted how scientists have already changed their focus from saving individual species to restoring entire ecosystems, underscoring their interconnectedness.

“The pendulum is constantly moving,” said Nu’uhiwa, cofounder of ‘Aimalama and doctoral candidate at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. “The climate is always changing. The question is how are we actually going to live through those swings.”

Water will always be here but maybe not in a drinkable form, she said. The ocean will be here but maybe it will occupy more space, she said, which might mean having to migrate as her ancestors did.

“What are you going to do to ensure your battle will allow your descendants to also be survivors?” she asked the crowd of more than 1,200 people.

Haunani Kane, right, and Aurora Kagawa-Viviani listen as Rosie Alegado, left, discusses colonialism’s role in climate change. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

It was one of the largest groups to attend the conference.

But it wasn’t just the size that was striking, as several panelists and moderators noted. It was the increased numbers of women and young people of color.

Nu’uhiwa has been going to the conference off and on the past 14 years. They started as a “room full of old geezers talking about themselves,” she said, adding that she is now one too.

“It’s really nice to see the diversity,” she said.

For Puniwai, the underlying solution to the climate crisis is aloha for the places and people, as Native Hawaiians had for their land and country. She said she can’t teach someone to love something but can teach how to care for it.

“We’ll only make a difference in climate change if we love these places,” she said, adding that adaptation and mitigation can’t just be based on data and science.

Think Like Island People

There is no separating the two for Kane, who finished her doctorate at UH in between sailing around the world in the Hokulea traditional voyaging canoe.

“It’s hard for myself to separate a cultural lens and scientific lens because it’s all the same,” she said.

Alegado emphasized the need to think more like island people.

“A continental mentality has the luxury of saying we’ll just go to the next river,” she said.

But that’s becoming less possible, even on the mainland, as the effects of a warming planet intensify despite efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Indigenous people are experiencing a third wave of colonialism, Alegado said.

The first was geographic displacement — think Waikiki. The second was social and psychocultural — think illegal occupation, forced assimilation and militarism in Hawaii. And the third is climate change, she said, driven by a consumer capitalist economy.

Even low-lying atolls in far-flung places are feeling the effects of climate change — indeed, disproportionately.

“We can still survive,” Alegado said. But that may mean letting go of losing the manner of comfortable living that led to this point, and instead focusing on how to have well being.

The conference runs through Thursday at the convention center in Honolulu.

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