Paradise Is Going Underwater. What Can We do? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Kaili Ayers

Kaili Ayers is a master’s degree candidate in International Relations at the Harvard Extension School and graduate of Pacific Forum’s Hawaii Asia-Pacific Affairs Leadership Program.

There is nothing more quintessential to Hawaii than its iconic beaches and idyllic scenery.

However, with the continual increase of global temperatures, the threat of sea level rise brings to light the reality of potentially compromised structures and coastal ecosystems that are crucial to Hawaii’s image of paradise and economic wellbeing.

Research published by the state of Hawaii suggests that by 2030, we can expect 3.2 feet of inundation. The loss of Waikiki beach alone is estimated cost $2.2 billion in 2016 dollars.

As a quick comparison, Hawaii’s 2016 real GDP in current dollars was approximately $86 billion with $19 billion in revenue from tourism intensive industries — around 22% of total state GDP.

Our Efforts

In order to mitigate the effects of sea level rise (or SLR, as it is known), Hawaii currently implements grey infrastructure which includes the use of sand groins and sea barriers. Green infrastructure, appropriately named, utilizes coastal ecosystems such as tidal marshes and sea grass to slow beach erosion and produce reserves of carbon.

While Hawaii does not implement the later, it has been used in other countries like the Philippines, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Indonesia — most notably through Conservation International’s Blue Carbon Initiative.

The simultaneous application of both is equivalent to a ‘no-regrets’ approach which means that solutions are not mutually exclusive and that even if newly planted coastal ecosystems do not function as expected in reducing the impacts of SLR, there are still other benefits such as making the environment cleaner and helping to alleviate storm runoff.

The caveat is that the use of coastal ecosystems in green infrastructure such as mangroves are extremely controversial in Hawaii because of their classification as an invasive species.

Moving Forward

On the broad spectrum of climate change, a global effort to improve the well-being of the planet has been impeded by the tendency to disregard any sense of urgency of the issue. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent need to shelter in place, data collected thus far demonstrates CO2 emissions are predicted to drop by 4-7% by the end of 2020.

The truth of the matter is that an emissions decrease of 4-7% is not enough to adhere to the 7.6% annual reduction as recommended by the United Nations. In fact, a temporary emissions reduction as seen with COVID-19 may result in an increased emission output following an economic reopening as seen with the 2008 global financial crisis.

Kailua Kona, Hawaii. 2 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Kailua-Kona Coast of the Big Island. Rising sea levels threaten to drastically change the islands, which is why mitigation efforts are needed now. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Moreover, the fact that emissions levels were shown to have evened out shortly following the last recession emphasizes the need for lasting structural change in the economic, transport, and energy systems. But I digress.

Despite the slight improvement to the environment, COVID-19 has severely impacted global economies. In the case of Hawaii, visitor counts have plummeted and the daily passenger average fell from 30,235 in January to a mere 388 in April.

While COVID-19 poses short-term climate relief, it is still prudent to continue developing appropriate SLR mitigation and adaptation strategies. Introduced earlier this year, Senate Bill 3099 SD2 HD1 encourages managed retreat, requires state entities to consider projected inundation levels in infrastructure projects, and orders counties to develop a detailed list of priority redevelopment areas that are prone to high risk flooding, among other directives.

An appropriate solution must include all relevant stakeholders.

While it enlists agencies such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to serve as members of the commission, it does not call on private industry such as hotels, and independent organizations or research institutions in seeking strategic recommendations.

Again, the appropriate solution is never a one-overall answer but a multi-pronged, “no-regrets” approach that includes all relevant stakeholders.

That said, state solutions like SB 3099 SD2 HD1 should therefore also have required collaboration with community, state, and private sector organizations and to implement, if appropriate, green-grey infrastructure in Hawaii’s long term SLR strategy going forward.

The further requirement for all stakeholders to convene regularly would allow for an increasingly more integrative and interdisciplinary approach to tackling SLR that has thus far been lacking. While SLR is challenging to say the least, the continued efforts on part of responsible stakeholders will continue to drive progress for the benefit of Hawaii for generations to come.

Unfortunately, SB 3099 did not pass session this year. But there is hope that Hawaii legislators will take up similar legislation in the new session that begins in January.

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About the Author

Kaili Ayers

Kaili Ayers is a master’s degree candidate in International Relations at the Harvard Extension School and graduate of Pacific Forum’s Hawaii Asia-Pacific Affairs Leadership Program.

Latest Comments (0)

This only possible outcome for mitigating SLR is that our elected "administrators" will perform very loud theatrics and say lots of things people want to hear, creating a perfect opportunity to establish new taxes to "save our shorelines."The reality though, which is very unfortunate, but also very predictable, they can only kick the can down the road and let the next round of administrators to continue on with the charade. 

Kken · 3 years ago

I thought we were sinking.

Vandy63 · 3 years ago

Most of us underestimate the scale of the swings in the ocean level that have occurred in the past (and thus can occur again in the future). Consider this: 25 thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, the ocean level was about 120 m (400 ft) lower than today. During a warm period 125 thousand years ago, the ocean level was about 10 m (33 ft) higher than today. For a few hundred years 14 thousand years ago, the ocean was rising by 2 ft every 10 years. It is not possible to fight a force of nature as powerful as this. Managed retreat based on the best available projections of the ocean level is the only viable option.

Chiquita · 3 years ago

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