The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable our modern societies are, particularly in an isolated island state like Hawaii.

We import 99% of our transportation fuel from thousands of miles away.

We import about 90% of our food, and the amount of local food produced is declining in recent years rather than increasing.

Almost all of our consumer, medical, and industrial goods are shipped or flown in, over thousands of miles.

We have only one or two hospitals in the state that can handle certain medical procedures.

We in Hawaii are especially vulnerable to economic shocks, pandemics and a number of familiar natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts, volcanic activity, and earthquakes.

And we haven’t even mentioned the exacerbating effects of climate change which are now apparent and will only worsen in the coming years.

In other words, Hawaii is incredibly non-resilient.

Waipio Valley on Hawaii Island. The county must do far more to prepare for possible disasters like COVID-19. Flickr: E Palen

We do, however, have feasible options for improving the current state of affairs.

The Hawaii County Council environmental and agricultural management committee a few weeks ago voted unanimously to make a relatively small code change that will lead to a revival of the mayor’s Sustainability Action Committee. Mayor Harry Kim created this committee in 2007, in his previous term, but never actually stood it up as a working committee. Thirteen years later it’s well past time to stand up this committee.

The new code language, Bill 142, adds “climate change” to the list of topics that are the purview of the Sustainability Action Committee. This change will allow Mayor Kim to finally stand up this important committee to address sustainability issues, which now explicitly includes climate change and resiliency in all of its forms.

The Big Island could, in theory, provide almost all of the needs of its people with local resources. But being resilient isn’t about manufacturing cell phones or big screen TVs locally — that’s not required or reasonable. Being resilient is more about being able to survive even the worst disasters by having, at the very least, water, food, shelter, medical supplies, energy and communication needs on hand so that we can, together, weather what storms may come our way.

When Disasters Come

How long could Hawaii last under our current lifestyle if we were cut off from outside food, oil, medical supplies, and manufactured goods? The sad answer is that we’d last less than a week before our society collapsed.

The current coronavirus pandemic has shown us that these kinds of scenarios aren’t impossible. These are the scenarios that we do need to plan for. We need to be resilient and ready for whatever disasters come our way. This means a number of important things:

Reducing our dependency on imports, e.g., shifting rapidly to local agriculture, renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal, beefing up water supplies, and shifting away from gasoline and diesel vehicles toward alternatives like electric vehicles.

Future-proofing our infrastructure and housing, e.g., planning for possible future migration from areas that will be inundated by rising sea levels.

Creating a culture of readiness through awareness and practice.

Hawaii Island already has a good start with various efforts like the Transportation Hui, coordinated by Riley Saito, who leads the county’s Research and Development Department energy programs, which recently completed its shared mobility plan working with the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

We also have the county’s greenhouse gas tracking efforts, which recently completed a county-wide inventory of emissions, building on similar state efforts.

By being more sustainable we become more resilient.

Combined with existing disaster preparedness plans led by the county’s Civil Defense Agency, and various efforts to promote local agriculture, there is much work that can be built upon in order to truly prepare our island to be resilient and sustainable.

Transforming our local economies will take smart planning and sustained community dialogue, so that all parts of our communities are on board and understand why these shifts need to take place. Sustainability and resiliency are two sides of the same coin. By being more sustainable we become more resilient.

Mayor Kim, please, as soon as possible, stand up the Sustainability Action Committee and let it get to work creating sustainability and resiliency plans for the Big Island, working with stakeholders every step of the way.

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