When thinking about the last two decades of climate change policy in Hawaii, I am reminded of the story of a certain South Pacific fisherman who, as Apollo 11 prepared to land on the moon, worried that men taking lunar rocks back to Earth would cause the moon to lose its evening glow.

Consulting his village elder, the man was advised that a curse could be placed upon the astronauts to make them fail if only he went to the beach at night, scooped a hole in the sand, and filled it with water from a hollowed coconut.

The fisherman did as the elder said, but discovered no matter how much water he poured in the hole, it drained away, forcing him to get more. The village elder, hearing of the man’s failure to complete the task, smiled and explained to the fisherman, “Thus even as you cannot drain the ocean, so men cannot stop the moon from shining.”

Climate change is happening around us and its effects are becoming more prominent on a global scale, but many of our past local solutions have been akin to trying to drain the ocean with a coconut.

Hawaii needs to address climate change symptomatically first and foremost.

Surf rolls in as a visitor walks what’s left of a beach on the North Shore of Oahu. The Legislature needs to get the ball rolling now on preparing for the impacts of climate change.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Our islands need to focus on preparing for and hardening against sea level rise, erosion, weather changes and other effects of climate change first, because we cannot possibly hope to compete with the effects of pollution by industrialized countries like China, India or Russia which combined accounted for 41% of all CO2 emissions in 2019 (the U.S. was 16%) according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Climate change will happen whether Hawaii’s policymakers want it to happen or not, regardless of the reasons they think it will happen or not. For Hawaii, 2020 is also an important year for climate policy because the decisions made today will set the course for the next decade.

Yet many locals are not aware of the implications climate change will have for their families’ future livelihood, or the kinds of government planning which will be necessary to ready Hawaii for climate change.

There is an unproductive war of hyperbole on both sides of the climate debate that has not made practical policymaking easy, with one extreme approaching climate change from a position of absolute denial and another extreme theatrically purporting some kind of planetary annihilation mere years from now.

Reality and sanity are probably somewhere in between, and one of the ways that our state’s elected officials can educate and prepare the public is to start holding legislative town halls or community Q&As to get buy in and resolve concerns.

Speed Is Essential

State Rep. Chris Lee, who has been a leading advocate of preparing Hawaii for climate change, has been attending community meetings on the subject and says he hopes other legislators will do the same around the state.

Last session, Lee and Rep. Nicole Lowen co-introduced House Bill 1487 which would have created a pilot project to plan shoreline protection and develop well-researched policy options to move forward. While the measure stalled in conference committee, it was one of the best attempts by the Legislature to get the ball rolling on creating a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to prepare Hawaii for the effects of climate change.

Lee says he is hopeful that elected officials at all levels will not only take action but work to get the public a better understanding of what needs to be done.

“The faster we act the more money we’ll save in the long run,” Lee says.

When asked what he thought legislators should do in the coming session, Lee explains: “The biggest thing they can do is start prioritizing funding to start the analysis, because what we don’t want to have is a worst-case disaster and were not ready for it, and we’re spending more money on responding than if we’d actually planned ahead.”

In that vein, this week the Hawaii Climate Conference 2020 will bring together numerous scientific luminaries and climate policy experts to discuss many of these issues. Still, bridging the knowledge gap between subject matter experts, elected officials and taxpayers is going to take a concerted effort.

Because of the politically divisive nature of climate policy – and the potential taxes and fees that might be necessary to fund them – greater communication needs to happen more often and at all levels.

If tackling climate change is a war and everyone is a combatant, all sides need to be better informed to produce successful outcomes. If we can better educate one another on climate change, we can also better motivate one another.

Sir William Francis Butler once warned, “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”

In Hawaii, this is a pattern that we have unfortunately been prone to adopt in many state and county objectives.

There is a storm coming. No matter what one believes about climate change, we need to get better informed and talk to each other about this more in 2020.

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