The United Nations leader has called for countries to do “everything, everywhere, all at once.”

Scientists, activists and policymakers in Hawaii say they are not surprised by the heightened warnings contained in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but they have some reasons for optimism.

Hawaii has been a leader among states grappling with the more serious effects of a warming planet, and international investments in clean energy are starting to exceed those made in fossil fuels.

But climate change is still accelerating and only “deep, rapid and sustained” cuts to greenhouse gas emissions will prevent the planet from overheating, according to the IPCC report released this week.

Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate due to the effects of climate change, scientists say. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

The panel is a multinational group of Nobel Prize-winning scientists that advances knowledge and advises policymakers about climate change. Its latest report paints a sobering picture of where the planet is headed.

“Nations have promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re not sticking to their promises,” said Chip Fletcher, interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

They get away with it because there’s no international governance system to regulate climate change.

“There’s no accountability,” Fletcher said. “A nation can promise whatever it wants and there’s no penalty for failing to meet that promise.”

Unless emissions from burning oil, coal and natural gas are cut by 60% by 2035, the world doesn’t stand much chance of containing warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — the target countries agreed to when they signed the Paris Agreement in 2015.

“The pace and scale of what has been done so far, and current plans, are insufficient to tackle climate change,” the IPCC said in its latest release.

If average global temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees, the world is expected to reach a tipping point with potentially catastrophic impacts including species extinctions, extreme flooding, frequent drought, loss of coral reefs, rapid melting of ice sheets and steep sea level rise.

At 1.5 degrees Celsius, coral reefs are projected to decline by a further 70%–90%, according to the report.

“Almost half the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions,” Aditi Mukherji, one of the report’s authors, said in the release.

Tires were places along the shoreline on Molokai in an effort to slow down the coastal erosion that's threatening Hawaiian homesteads.
Tires were placed along the shoreline on Molokai in an effort to slow down the coastal erosion that’s threatening Hawaiian homesteads. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

The world has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution so it only has 0.4 degrees left to go before the most intense climate disasters set in.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday the “climate time bomb is ticking” and “humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast.”

Guterres called on wealthy nations to do “everything, everywhere, all at once” and stop using fossil fuels by 2040, and for developing countries to hit that target by 2050. Besides emissions cuts, he outlined a series of other steps needed to avert catastrophe, including shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables and stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves. (A short video with five key takeaways from the report can be found here.)

Chip Fletcher Associate Dean UH School of School of Science and Earth Science and Technology during the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum at the Capitol auditorium.
University of Hawaii climate expert Chip Fletcher, center, says there’s no accountability when countries fail to do their promised part to combat climate change. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Last week the Biden administration approved a huge oil project in Alaska called Willow that will produce an estimated 180,000 barrels a day, invoking backlash from climate activists including former Vice President Al Gore who called it “recklessly irresponsible” and a “recipe for climate chaos.”

Despite the grim climate change news, some encouraging trends are emerging, particularly when it comes to the money being invested in renewable energy technology.

For the first time, the global investment in clean energy last year, about $1.1 trillion, was greater than the amounts invested in oil and gas production.

“That’s never happened before,” said Fletcher, citing data from the International Energy Agency. “This is a 31% jump in clean energy from 2021. And it now appears that global energy growth can now entirely be met by renewables. This has never been the case before either.”

Global energy growth can by met by renewables for the first time, climate scientist Chip Fletcher says. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Fletcher also pointed out that new research indicates that all of the nation’s coal-fired power plants except for one are more expensive to operate than building new solar or wind farms in the Unites States. The median cost for coal-fired plants is $36 per megawatt-hour compared to $24 per megawatt-hour for new solar plants.

While the global energy transition appears to be headed in the right direction, there are many reasons why Hawaii and the rest of the United States and the world need to remain vigilant, Fletcher said.

Even though sizable investments are being poured into wind, solar and other clean technology, the amount needed to reach the global target of net-zero emissions by 2050 would need to triple, according to research by BloombergNEF.

Victoria Keener, senior research fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, agrees that massive reductions in emissions and huge investments in clean technology must be made to come anywhere close to reaching net-zero before it’s too late.

“We know that there are some gigantic, systemic changes that we need to make in order to reach these goals and limit the warming to manageable levels for our ecosystems and communities,” Keener said.

Victoria Keener Pacific RISA
Victoria Keener leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists in translating climate knowledge for county and state leadership. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022)

Hawaii has been a leader among states in taking bold steps to prepare for and adapt to climate impacts, Keener said.

It was the first state to commit to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. In 2021, Hawaii declared a climate emergency. And in 2015, then-Gov. David Ige signed a landmark bill requiring the state to generate 100% of its electricity by 2045.

Keener also points out that the state has developed practical tools like a sea level rise viewer that’s not just based on historical data but rather projections of future sea level rise taking climate change into account.

The viewer is an interactive mapping tool that allows users to assess vulnerability to flooding and other coastal hazards associated with sea level rise.

Legislature Rep Nicole Lowen Vice Chair Oxybenzone hearing. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Nicole Lowen said the state can only move as fast as its regulations allow. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the Hawaii House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said Hawaii has done a lot, but it can only move as fast as laws and regulations allow.

“There’s no available magic wand to wave to build energy projects overnight and get everyone to change their car from an internal combustion engine to an EV,” she said.

Lowen said it’s unfortunate that not all Hawaii legislators feel a sense of urgency around advancing the energy transition as rapidly as she does.

She noted for example that House Bill 198 would have provided rebates to low- and moderate-income people who wanted to purchase electric vehicles, but the measure died this legislative session.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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