In January, Civil Beat took a deep dive into climate change with the launch of a yearlong project called Hawaii 2040.

We chose 2040 because that’s the year that the world’s top scientists have identified as the turning point for the planet — and for ourselves. To ward off the worst effects of climate change, scientists say we must make massive shifts in our behavior to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2040.

So we set out to learn more about how climate change has already affected Hawaii and what the future holds. Who is doing something about it? Who is standing in the way? And what’s really at risk here?

It was quite a year. Depressing at times, uplifting at others, but always eye opening.

The project took us to communities around Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. We learned about sea level rise, wildfires, coral bleaching, extinction, disease, watersheds and more.

We drove up Mauna Loa to where the foundation of modern climate research is happening. We talked to scientists who are measuring the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air. (And then we planted 100 trees on the west side of Oahu to offset some of our own emissions.)

We hiked in remote forests on the side of Haleakala in search of native forest birds that could go extinct within the next decade. Warmer temperatures are allowing disease-carrying mosquitoes to reach the birds’ last refuge in higher altitudes.

And we looked below the surface at sick and dying corals, bleached white by an ocean that’s warming up too fast for them to adapt. That threatens our own coastal security, as the reefs act like natural barriers to diffuse the energy of major storms.

We talked to a retired teacher and others whose homes are one storm away from sliding into the sea. They are worried about where they should live but aren’t finding any answers from the state or county leaders who have dragged their feet when it comes to developing a managed retreat plan.

And we interviewed their neighbors who are having a harder time making it to town because, with increasing frequency, high tides and heavy rains are shutting down the only road that connects them with the rest of the island.

It was a year of learning about how climate change is as much an economic issue as it is environmental. Three feet of sea level rise is estimated to cause more than $20 billion in damage to coastal businesses, roads and land. That doesn’t include the compounding effect on tourism and other industries that drive the state’s economy.

Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, on the upper slopes of Haleakala, offers a glimpse into what Hawaii once was. Climate change, as well as the introduction of non-native species, threatens the endemic plants and animals that take refuge here.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Dozens of readers told us about the changes they are seeing in their own backyards.

Doorae Shin, a 26-year-old from Manoa, said her generation is living in fear of the world it inherited. She is bracing for a major hurricane and more flooding. In the meantime, she is part of a growing movement for plant-based living and vegan food choices to minimize her carbon footprint.

As a coral reef scientist, Mark Hixon of Honolulu said he is appalled at how unprepared Hawaii is for forthcoming massive coral bleaching events. His focus is on saving the uhu, a parrotfish whose feeding habits make reefs more resilient.

Edward Matukawa of Kapaa, Kauai, said the unprecedented flooding in April 2018 impacted his family’s rental property in Hanalei. He’s worried about what he and other property owners should do in light of rising seas and stronger storms.

Stacy Crivello of Molokai said climate change primarily affects her by the loss of highway access and beaches.

Guy Ward told us how his macadamia nut orchard near Laupahoehoe on Hawaii island received 292 inches of rain last year — roughly double the normal amount he observes there. He said it may be a weather anomaly but he fears it’s linked to a warming ocean.

We’re continuing to ask readers what they are seeing, hearing, feeling about climate change. Civil Beat’s Claire Caulfield is fielding your questions and tracking down answers for her podcast, “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions.”

Despite the myriad reasons to feel pessimistic about Hawaii’s future in light of climate change, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Looking to 2020, I’ll be serving on a panel in January at the second annual Hawaii Climate Conference to help scientists work with the media so neither side is a bottleneck in getting timely information out to the public about climate change.

We’ll also be examining watersheds and how climate change may affect our drinking water supply.

The public is engaged in this issue, despite the preponderance of doom and gloom — though the pessimism is warranted.

National and international reports have only grown more dire with each installment. Policymakers and elected officials have set bold goals — 100% renewable energy, for instance — but have been slow to respond to a climate crisis that is coming faster than expected.

There are reasons for optimism though. The public’s heightened attention, testimony and activism have pushed climate change up the priority ladder for Hawaii’s leaders. It’s becoming a campaign issue — and the ballot box is where citizens can speak loudest. 

Hawaii also has an incredible trust of brainpower and people committed to fighting arguably the greatest threat the islands have ever seen.

And in many cases, solutions don’t involve reinventing the wheel. There are indigenous answers and western approaches that community members are utilizing to solve these challenging problems — often in tandem.

Noelani Puniwai, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, summed it up well.

“We can’t talk about things in our silos,” she said. “We all have to talk about things as a community.”

About the Author

A critical time for local journalism . . .

Over 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers in the U.S. have ceased operations since 2004 — among them the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Weekly. Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases.

 

Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor.

 

We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our small newsroom with a tax-deductible gift.