My grandma had a tradition on New Year’s Eve that she carried on from her mother – everyone had to do a shot of gin and eat a piece of raw salmon at midnight. This was in addition to adhering to our Chinese tradition of popping fireworks to chase away the bad spirits that bring bad luck and bad health.

You have to believe a lot of places may have followed their traditions for good luck this year as we welcomed in 2020. With its high levels of political conflict, climate crisis-driven wildfires and deforestation in the Amazon, 2019 certainly was a year we should not hope to repeat.

Riddled throughout the pictures of celebration on my news feed this New Year’s Eve were images from friends in Australia of ominously darkened skies. Giant, devastating wildfires continue to ravage the Oceanic country at an unprecedented rate. The air quality in some places in Australia is the worst on record – residents are being advised to stay indoors to protect themselves from the hazardous conditions.

Maui firefighter watches fields near Pulehu Road with gusty tradewinds pushing fire towards Kihei.
Australia offers lessons for Hawaii to learn about its own problem with brushfires amid climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Of particular concern is the particle pollution being generated by the fires. Officials are closely monitoring the Air Quality Index, particularly the fine particles. Fine particles (PM2.5) are particles less than or equal to 2.5 microns or less in width. These particles are so small that they can easily travel into the lungs, exacerbating or creating respiratory conditions.

The measurement in December, before the worst of the fire conditions, was 734 micrograms – the Australian clear air standard is a PM2.5 level of 8 micrograms per cubic meter — meaning the current levels are over 90 times the healthy limits.

The AQI is equally alarming. The EPA rates an AQI value of 0-50 as “good” and 201-300 as “very unhealthy.” Several areas throughout Australia scored over 1,000, two areas exceeded 2,000 and one suburb rated over 2,500 – over 12 times the “hazardous” level.

Scientists from the University of Sydney estimate 480 million animals, including mammals, birds and reptiles, have died in the wildfires since September. The number is likely to increase before the fires end this season.

The reality is that entire species of plants or animals may have been lost or populations decreased to the point that they cannot be saved. This should not be too much of a surprise, as over 12 million acres have burned. This is approximately two times the entire land mass of the main Hawaiian Islands. It’s also more than six times the total area impacted by the 2018 California wildfires.

It is critical for Hawaii to pay attention to the events transpiring in Australia, as they have been largely fueled by volatility in climate conditions. While there are obviously differences between Hawaii’s and Australia’s ecosystems, the extreme fluctuation between heavy rains and severe drought are conditions we’re seeing in Hawaii.

All of the Hawaiian Islands have been impacted by wildfires. It’s time to accept that we have to do more and do better than we have in preparing for climate disasters.

We can no longer think of the climate crisis as something that’s debatable. Response can no longer be optional. Preparation can no longer be delayed. A devastating climate crisis is changing the planet and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Yet, the changes we need to make will require concessions and sacrifices from all of us. The only way to reduce the potential conflict around this is to ensure sacrifices are shared equally by all communities. It’s not fair to continue to place landfills in Waianae and towering windmills in backyards in Kahuku when areas with more wealth use their influence to ensure that these land uses never end up in their communities.

This interactive map shows the perimeter of wildfires in Hawaii between 1999 and 2018. Zoom in to see details of each island. (Source: University of Hawaii Wildland Fire Program)

The painful reality is that the rural communities that contribute the least to climate change are for some reason expected to make the greatest sacrifices to its solutions.

Also, tax incentives are regularly reserved for technologies, like residential photovoltaic systems and electric cars, that are too often unaffordable for working families.

Environmentalists, who are knowledgeable and passionate about these critical issues, need to become more self-reflective about how they communicate and lobby for their agenda. Too often, important changes are mired down by advocates who can be out of touch with Hawaii’s local community and its values. This is not to imply that local values are not in sync with an environmental agenda, but local culture is often subdued, subtle and humble — traits few environmentalists embrace.

The aggressive nature of the efforts often galvanize opposition more than it builds alliances. Perhaps there is an important lesson to learn from Hawaii’s plantation history. Alliances and resilience were built from shared space and culture. Sometimes we accomplish much more from setting aside agendas and simply enjoying our neighbors.

It’s counterintuitive to think that growing divisions will somehow result in a coalesced community.

Environmental action should not, and need not, be a point of conflict. If anything, we should be mobilizing around these issues. This should be a goal for all of us in the upcoming year. The less action we take now, the more burden we are leaving for future generations.

Perhaps our resolutions should not be targeted for the upcoming year, but for the upcoming generations.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.