Protesters have been gathering nightly to protest the development of wind turbines near Kahuku. The rallying cries are “mālama ʻāina,” “aloha ʻāina,” and “kū kiaʻi Kahuku.”

It may seem that it is contradictory to love and care for the land and be opposed to wind turbines which are being installed to reduce fossil fuels. It is not. Harming local communities to fight climate change will make it impossible to bring about the radical social and economic changes we need to effectively decarbonize our economy.

In the last year, the world scientific consensus has come together to show that climate change is happening faster than anyone expected. The oceans are more acidic, coral reefs are bleaching, the Greenland ice sheets are melting, and record areas of the Amazon are burning. The scientists have spoken and the world needs renewable energy now.

The question is not whether we need to decarbonize our economy, but how we will do it and how the impacts and benefits are distributed. Globally, the question about the distribution of the impacts and benefits were the trickiest part in negotiating the Paris accords and is still far from being decided.

The fight against industrial wind turbines less than a quarter mile from the small town Kahuku is about the distribution of these harms and benefits. It is well documented that wind energy is noisy, reduces property values, and kills native bats and birds. There is a growing body of research that suggests that the noise is not only annoying but can impact nearby residents’ health.

These economic, physical, and ecological impacts are not felt equally but impact those who live closest. This unequal distribution of environmental harms has long been noted by the environmental justice movement. Industrial power plants, incinerators, and landfills are almost always located next to low-income communities of color.

Kahuku wind turbines arrive off of Kamehameha Highway as protestors shout ‘hewa’.
Wind turbines for Kahuku arrive along Kamehameha Highway as protestors shout “hewa.” It is unfair that small rural communities bear the expense of the transition to renewable energy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Kahuku, industrial wind turbines are following the same strategies. These projects harm those that have benefited the least from the current fossil-fueled economic system that created the global climate crisis.

The cruel irony is that those least responsible will bear the greatest impacts. The poorest nations of the world will be hit hardest by sea level rise, increased hurricanes, and droughts.

Within richer, developed countries it is the rural and urban poor and communities of color who will be left stranded as waters rise and home prices plummet. We saw this as Hurricane Katrina rolled into New Orleans and Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico.

Requiring small rural communities to bear the expense of the transition to renewable energy is not only unfair, it is also doomed to fail. The protesters of Kahuku identify with the protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and protests against the expansion of a sports center in Waimanalo.

What all of these fights have in common is that local communities are tired of corporations and their politicians controlling the fate of local communities. Any strategy to solve for global climate change that does not address economic inequality will fail because these communities will fight against it.

Our current battle to save the planet is not a technological problem but a political problem. We have the technology we need to transition to a carbon-zero economy but lack the political will to make it happen.

In many countries like Brazil and the U.S., rising anti-corporate conservative nationalist movements have made the promise of a sustainable future seem like a pipe dream. Continuing approaches that require poor rural communities to be sacrificed for a clean-energy future will be fought tooth and nail and will make “environmentalism” a cuss word and doom any opportunity we have to create the long lasting, permanent changes to decarbonize our economy.

Our current battle to save the planet is not a technological problem but a political problem.

Trying to solve the global climate crisis with capitalist solutions ignores that it was these same corporations that got us into this situation in the first place. While we have the technology to solve global climate change, we will never generate the political will to solve the problem if it happens at the expense of local communities.

In Hawaii the protests against wind turbines will be in Kahuku, then Waianae, then Waimanalo, and then any new community where wind turbines disproportionately impact local communities. The top down projects are rightly seen as continuing the colonial processes that originally excluded these communities from active participation.

Green New Deal Needed

So where do we go from here?

The Green New Deal is so exciting because it imagines radically transforming our economy while simultaneously addressing social inequality. Any solution that is not both environmentally and socially equitable will fail.

So what does this look like in Hawaii?

We need to find solutions to climate change that are socially equitable. Wind power is not equitable. Solar power, ocean thermal energy conversion, improvements in home and business energy efficiency (that save local households money), smarter grid and variable energy pricing to accommodate more solar production, and carbon sequestration (planting trees) are all climate strategies that are supported by local communities and whose benefits are distributed equally.

These environmental proposals need to be accompanied by social progress with green jobs, affordable housing, and sustainability education.

Will these developments be as profitable? No, they will not, but they will prioritize communities over shareholders and people over profits which is essential to achieve a zero-carbon future.

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