Hawaii became the first state to declare a climate emergency last year. This year, the Legislature will be called on to come up with concrete initiatives to tackle the problem. 

The Environmental Legislative Caucus, a group formed in 2020 to encourage legislative action on environmental issues, plans to introduce a package of measures including visitor green fees, habitat conservation, carbon pricing, health initiatives and more.

Opinion is divided among state officials, experts and advocates on what Hawaii’s top priority should be in addressing the complicated and intensifying climate crisis.

“There’s not one singular priority,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs a committee on energy and environmental protection. “There are a lot of moving parts to climate policy and all of them are important.” 

Waialae Beach Park with flooded grass field after heavy rains yesterday.
Hawaii had record-setting rainfall in early December with floods reaching more than 7 inches. Above is Waialae Beach Park with a flooded grass field after heavy rainfall. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The stakes are high as climate change is blamed for beach erosion caused by rising sea levels and more intense and frequent storms that have led to recent flooding. Experts predict the weather extremes will worsen.

As the state begins to see economic recovery despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke predicted legislators will focus more on supporting climate change initiatives in the upcoming session, which begins on Jan. 19.

“As we continue to come out of the pandemic and try to get back to some normalcy, climate change has been a top-of-mind issue in the last several years,” Luke said. “And now that we have more revenues coming in, we need to make commitments. We need to make money commitments in order for us to address climate change. We can’t just talk about it anymore.”

One bill that the Environmental Legislative Caucus said it plans to introduce on Jan. 21 would propose a so-called green fee that would be charged to tourists, with revenues funneled into environmental projects. Senate Bill 666 would have done the same thing, but it stalled in a House committee last session. It’s up to the committee whether to take it back up this session.

An annual report from the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, a legislative advisory group composed of state and county officials, said the two main priorities should be ground transportation reduction and adapting to sea level rise. 

The commission supports a price on carbon, mechanisms to reduce overall vehicle usage, and converting all remaining vehicle-based ground transportation to renewable, zero-emission fuels and technologies. 

It also called for increased funding to protect existing development from sea level rise. 

Mary Alice Evans, who co-chairs the commission, described mitigation efforts as a sprint and the adaptation efforts as a marathon.

She said that was a “good thing because some of it is going to be very expensive, you want to have time to look at funding sources and phase things in that meet the current needs and don’t preclude future changes.”

On the other hand, the Sierra Club of Hawaii would like to see the Legislature focus on watershed protection that helps native ecosystems recharge the islands’ aquifers and more. 

“With reduced rainfall, invasive species, ongoing stream diversions and growing demand for water, we need to prioritize the restoration and protection of our watersheds for ourselves and our future generations,” said Wayne Tanaka, who heads the Sierra Club of Hawaii.

He also said he hopes that lawmakers support community-based stewardship efforts and ensure that any renewable energy products don’t unfairly burden certain communities. 

Rising seas and increased flooding regularly close stretches of Kamehameha Highway, the only way in and out for residents living in Hauula, Kaaawa and other Windward Oahu communities. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

Last session, legislators passed more than a dozen climate-related measures that became law, including a sustainable aviation fuel program and a requirement for the state Office of Planning – in cooperation with each state agency having operational responsibilities – to handle the effects of climate change.

Though it’s too early to tell what bills will pass this session, some that stalled last year may be reintroduced, according to Sen. Mike Gabbard.

Those include Senate Bill 350, which would require the clean water branch to perform water quality testing during brown water advisories and inform the public of health risks associated with water run-off during these events. Heavier periods of rainfall combined with depleted watersheds leads to more pollutants washing into the ocean.

Another is Senate Bill 167, which would establish environmental objectives for infrastructure and transit projects in the Hawaii State Planning Act.

While some advocates say that the state has taken the lead on climate change initiatives, others say more needs to be done.

“While Hawaii has made strides with renewable energy, we are lagging in clean transportation,” said Melissa Miyashiro, executive director of the nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation

“Climate change is a big, daunting problem,” she said. “We have to keep moving forward on the areas where there are alignments, while also pushing for bold, transformative goals.”

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