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The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: UH Climate Expert Chip Fletcher
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The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: UH Climate Expert Chip Fletcher

Editorial Board Chip Fletcher


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke with Chip Fletcher, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He is also chairman of Honolulu’s Climate Change Commission. Fletcher, who has been a consistent voice warning of the treat of global warming, began by talking about his work and SOEST.

Chip Fletcher: I have come up through the faculty ranks as a professor doing research on all sorts of shoreline science, coastal science. I had the opportunity to branch out from the high Hawaiian Islands to the west, studying some of the atoll communities in the Pacific, as well as Papahanaumokuakea to our north. And about 10 years ago I moved into a combination of administration and research and teaching at SOEST. And I’ll be interim dean starting Jan. 1 as we search for a permanent dean because our current dean (Brian Taylor) is retiring.

SOEST studies everything from Mars and the stars and the moon down to the abyss, the deepest portions of the seafloor. We have a real focus on local science, but the science that we engage in is biology, geology, chemistry and combinations of those, called bio-geochemistry, oceanography, and atmospheric sciences — which includes meteorology, which is weather — how is cloud formation changing as the air gets warmer and as the trade winds shift more to the east? And everything in between. We are on all things science, both globally and locally and regionally.

And your specific focus is climate change, sustainability, coastal preservation — is that a fair way to describe your work?

I wouldn’t say coastal preservation. My research has been on making observations and building models from those observations of shoreline change. It’s projecting what we know about waves and the shoreline forward so that we can improve our understanding of what sea level rise is going to look like. What’s it going to bring to our community? You know, there’s the coastal erosion issue and we have a model of coastal erosion, which we are currently updating and working with U.S. Geological Survey to become a more robust model of shoreline change with rising sea level.

It’s my research team that discovered the phenomenon of groundwater invasion through just simply connecting some dots that hydrologists in SOEST had observed on Maui — that the water table goes up and down when there are large swell events, waves, off the North Shore of Maui. They saw the energy of those swell events in the water table in Kihei on the opposite side of Maui. And so it simply took a matter of realizing that, well, if they’re seeing that, then as the ocean rises due to global warming, obviously the water table is going to rise as well because there’s a clear connectivity there.

Editorial Board Chip Fletcher
Chip Fletcher met with the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Tuesday and shared the latest on global warming and what we can do to mitigate against it. 

You (can) extend that to Waikiki, where excavations for building construction and for archeological investigations that precede new building construction — in Waikiki, Kakaako and Iwilei and other low-lying areas  — you find in the trenches of these excavations that at high tide out in the ocean, the trenches suddenly filled with water and it hasn’t rained. So we know that at high tide in the ocean, the water table under these very low-lying portions of the urban core is only about 2 feet below the ground level, meaning that 2 feet of sea-level rise, which may very well develop by mid-century or shortly after mid-century, is going to lead to flooding of Iwilei, Waikiki, portions of Kakaako at high tide. Then it will go away and then it will occur again and then it will go away during the highest tide of the day.

If you (have) rain on top of that, that will extend the flooding and will prolong the flooding, and it will deepen the flooding that we’ve modeled. We’ve modeled saltwater coming out of the storm drains, because our storm drains take runoff and supposedly are designed to move that runoff to canals and to the ocean, like the Ala Wai and the other canals that cut across our communities. That’s a purposeful drainage system. But at high tide, they fill with saltwater and they fill up into the storm drains and the storm drains backflow onto the streets.

It’s a shame that the United States can’t provide consistent leadership on the climate change front.

We’ve modeled coastal erosion, and we have modeled the annual surf at 1 foot of sea level rise, 2 feet of sea level rise, 3 feet of sea level rise. And we see that the annual predictable surf under very small amounts of higher sea level runs up into our communities. In Ewa Beach at between 2 and 3 feet of sea-level rise, the first two blocks of those homes are going to be flooded by high wave run-up every summer, probably a couple of times.

You mentioned Waikiki, Kakaako, Iwilei. You’re talking about tens of thousands of residents as well as visitors, also industrial. And I suppose if we go out to Ewa and (include) the military complex, this is an enormously important part of our islands. Should we be freaking out right now?

No, freaking out doesn’t help anybody. That would have been great 20 years ago. The last several years have been spent getting people to have that “aha moment.” And I think pretty much everybody who really has decision-making authority from the owners of land to the policymakers, the vast majority of these folks have had that aha moment.

Now we’re at the phase of, OK, what do we do? How do we handle this issue? The fundamental decision of do we stay or do we leave — that is leaning towards we stay in the urban core and figure out how to live with water. But I’m not sure people realize that we’re talking about a decision that will be many, many centuries long.

And one that we may have to make within the next few decades.


An interactive mapping tool shows sea level rise vulnerability. PacIOOS/2021

I was coming back (to town) from Turtle Bay last weekend and I took Kamehameha Highway (along the Windward Side). I was surprised at the erosion. One little quick turn of my wheel — in Hauula, Punaluu, Kaaawa — and I would have been in the ocean. I think I did see some areas where it looked like there had been some work done, probably by state DOT, to firm up the shoreline. But I was surprised how much had changed only since the last time I had gone up there. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on? I could bring up the North Shore and all those properties, too.

There are several examples, sort of the type of sections, of what this looks like. Two Sundays ago, I think it was now, we had a Kona low, one, that dumped rain on us. We had onshore winds to Waikiki, which pushed water towards the shoreline. We had waves that pushed that water up over the shoreline. And you may have seen Instagram footage of water on Kalakaua Avenue, which is the third-most valuable shopping block in the United States.

There was a king tide happening. We had 6 to 8 inches of additional water in the high tide above what we would predict based on gravitational theory. Then we get the rain and we get the onshore winds and everything. So there’s that urban flooding version.

Damaged section of road on Kamehameha Highway in Kaaawa. Climate change.
Parts of Kamehameha Highway in Windward Oahu are threatened by rising seas and coastal erosion. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Then there is access to rural communities, which you experienced when you’re driving down the Windward Side. It’s the only road. It’s the only road. You have thousands, tens of thousands of people who live in rural settings who have grown up there, who have a stake in the land. There’s a cultural component. There is a heritage that goes back.

They have seen over the last 50 years the slow loss of their beaches, the response of individual landowners and government agencies to armor the shoreline in response, and especially since there’s only one road that serves those communities. And if you notice when you drive along that windward road and you look mauka, the communities actually sit a little lower than the road. Interesting.

Ed Sniffen at the DOT has very appropriately mentioned, what’s the future of those communities? Do we spend $10 million shoring up this road for another decade or two? Or do we add another zero to that and build a road that will last for a century? Which do we do if those communities are in doubt? And he’s absolutely right, because the water table is right below those homes.

Now we need to do more research to see how the water table is behaving there and how much sort of headroom or accommodation space that we have in the soil before the water table actually breaks through and those communities get flooded by the water table. So it’s a very open question. And yes, it is the state DOT that has protected those roads. And yes, seawalls are bad. Armoring is bad, but I don’t think anybody can criticize them because this is a lifeline. This road has to be protected.

It does. You can’t just build more mauka. I mean, you’re up against a mountain range, and then there’s property ownership issues as well. It really may come down to people having to relocate.

So what does that look like? We call that strategic retreat, some sort of organized, managed movement of a community away from the shoreline. Who’s going to be coordinating that? If it’s a government authority and if it’s not done properly, carefully and appropriately, it’s just going to be the latest chapter of land theft, right? We have a long and sad history of land theft in Hawaii.

And now we have sea-level rising if we don’t engage these communities and listen to their stories. If we don’t allow them to tell what they have to tell and then to also define and own their future, then this is simply going to come down as a government program handed down onto a community, multiple communities, that are already underserved by government. So this has to be done extremely carefully.

I wonder if I just might go back to that aha moment. Are you seeing more and more people get it? I mean, you mentioned 20 years ago, not so much, but it’s not just flooding anymore or the occasional king tide here and there. Are you seeing people maybe not in your field saying something’s happening here to these islands that we live in?

The big thing, I believe, was the summer of 2019 or 2018, where we had a marine heat wave settling around Hawaii. We had hot water and we broke over 300 individual temperature records around the state. It was hot as blazes that summer and everybody suddenly was getting it. I remember myself that, if I were outside walking, I planned it by the shadows. Like, where are trees casting shadows? Because if I walk in the open sunlight, within about 15 seconds I’m going to break into a sweat. That was one hot summer, and that was probably 2019. So it was just three years ago. Oh my gosh, that was when there was no longer any question.

You mentioned the trade winds you’ve been studying, that are coming from a more easterly direction. I’m kind of curious about why that’s happening and what are the implications of that.

There are a couple of facts here. A meteorologist in the atmospheric sciences department at SOEST — he’s actually the state climatologist — has published a number of papers showing that the trade winds are coming more from the east and less from the northeast. Their average speed is reduced, the number of trade wind days is reduced, and either he or others have analyzed that the interaction of easterly winds with our ridge lines produce less cloud cover and therefore less precipitation as a result.

Our trade winds come from what’s known as the North Pacific High. The North Pacific High is apparently shifting such that the winds are moving more from the east. I am not aware of a paper that identifies exactly what’s going on with the North Pacific High that has nailed that down, because it’s highly variable and it changes from day to day. So presumably it has to do with a shift in the North Pacific. It could be related to an expansion of the tropics and expansion of the doldrums zone. We know the tropics are expanding around the world and the doldrums along with them, so just general changes in atmospheric circulation in the North Central Pacific is what’s going on.

You actually did sort of get to the implications when you said it means less rainfall, that somehow the easterly trade winds where they interact with the mountaintops means less rain.

Yes, and we can confirm that with other studies, that rainfall has declined for over a century. We have really good rainfall records going back to plantation days. Rainfall has declined and drought has expanded. And rainfall has become more flashy, meaning that when it does rain, it tends to rain more intensely and for a shorter period of time separated then by longer periods of drought and those — there’s a whole number of published peer reviewed scientific studies (on that).

I’ve been thinking about the rains because it seems like, when I was growing up, it rained almost every morning, but it was a light rain. And then every so often we get downpours. But the last couple of years, it just seems like those light rains have gone. And now we get these downpours a couple of times a year. Why is that?

Rainfall is highly variable, which means that the statistics of rainfall are very difficult to define because it’s all over the map from one month to the next, from one year to the next, from one decade to the next. There are lots of things that influence rainfall: the sea surface temperature, El Niño, La Niña, trades, no trades, air temperature. And we haven’t really seen a paper yet, a scientific study that has produced clear, statistically clear confirmation that rain is becoming more flashy and that light rain has been reduced. It is certainly what all the word-of-mouth confirms is taking place. The warming of the air by our anthropogenic greenhouse gases affects the water cycle — heats the water cycle on steroids. So evaporation is greater, soil moisture is reduced. You get more humidity in the air. You approach the condensation point faster.

I’m not a rain expert, but perhaps because the air temperature is stronger you will keep more moisture as vapor and less as mist or rain. We are not seeing that misty phase that you say you used to see, but it is definitely true that we see more intense rainfall occurring. And this is, you know, in hurricanes as a seasonal phenomenon. It’s a sort of standard rule of thumb now — and observations are supporting it — that when it rains, it’s cats and dogs more than in the past, which leads to more flooding and more damage.

I want to shift to Build Back Better and the news this week. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, rejected the $2.2 billion social spending and climate change bill. Here’s what Brian Schatz, our senior U.S. senator, had to say: “We have no choice but to forge a path forward. The planet is warming, and we are already experiencing violently weird, weird weather all the time.” Just how bad of a blow was Sen. Manchin’s announcement this week on where he stands on BBB?

Well, I believe I published a piece in Civil Beat on that. Just as a sidebar, it took many iterations with my wife to tone down the language.

Feel free, Chip, to use this opportunity.

Eventually, she said, OK, you can go ahead and submit (the Community Voice on Manchin).

I don’t know where this is going to go. I don’t really follow Washington. It’s actually rare that I dive into an article. Mostly, I follow the headlines. Joe Manchin began to upset me deeply last spring, even before that. And nobody should really be surprised that he’s done this. Everybody could have predicted it. People are saying that we saw this coming. Something I heard this morning was that this actually increases the chances that we’ll see someone like (Donald) Trump get re-elected.

It is a shame that the United States cannot provide consistent leadership on the climate change front. It’s also a shame that voters in the U.S. can’t see that taking care of children, taking care of each other through support, as is successful in many other countries through child care, through medical (assistance), through all sorts of what are labeled, you know, socialist progressive policies, are good things. It’s a shame that this is viewed in an evil light by one of our political parties. And so in my mind, the United States keeps muddling along while the whole world watches us trip (up).

If I understand correctly, some of the things the bill would do or would have done — we’ll see, there’s talk that there may be another version — is a sweeping series of tax credits aimed at encouraging a transition to clean energy, tax credits supporting the purchase of electric vehicles that would hopefully increase the incentive to get those cars. Manchin, in particular, opposed what he called a punitive fee for the oil and gas industry for methane. Is that kind of capturing what you recall is in that bill, or would be in that bill?

I didn’t study the bill, but that sounds like, you know, typical stuff. Good stuff.

Did you know that the United Mine Workers of America, which represents a West Virginia coal miners, want Manchin to change his mind? The bill would have included an extension of a fund that provides benefits to coal miners suffering from black lung disease that expires at the end of the year. And for now at least it’s not moving. How will this impact Hawaii?

I’ll tell you, frankly, I get confused with a number of bills that are being passed and fought back and forth — we have the House, we have the Senate, we have one of these chambers waiting for the other chamber to do something before it commits to doing something. I think that federal funding is going to be the key to a number of things in Hawaii. One thing that I personally would like to see is to move more rapidly on adaptation, which is going to be an expensive need.

And you know, the Windward side road is a good example, but I would love to see us utilize carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and green hydrogen to produce our jet fuel, our aviation fuel, rather than being reliant on tankers from Libya and Russia as we currently are. We could use direct air capture and green hydrogen to produce jet fuel, and it can pay for itself.

It can be marketable if you compete in the market. And then when long-haul aviation eventually turns to hydrogen or battery power, wherever it’s going to go in a decade or two from now, the same facility that we would use as an aviation refinery can continue to pull CO2 out of the air and inject it into the bedrock here, which is something that we’re going to need to spin up around the world. A whole network of direct capture machines in order to get back to a safe climate.

I went off on a tangent there, but that’s just one type of project where I think funding from Washington is absolutely critical to enact, something that probably won’t happen if there’s a change in 2022 and 2024 in D.C.

Any other thing you want to add about Manchin before we move on to Scotland?

Yes, a study came out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. a year or two ago. I believe the conclusion was that the more a Congress person votes against the environment, the more direct support they get from the oil and gas industry. I mean, this was peer reviewed, it’s one of the top journals. This was in their abstract at the beginning of the paper. So we have a Congress that is bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry, and they are stalling and eliminating the possibility of a safe climate for our children.

This is a real cheerful interview, Chip.

Welcome to my life.

But that’s the reason we’re here. You were in Glasgow for COP26, the UN’s conference on climate change. What was it like? What was your takeaway from being there?

It was chaos. I was warned beforehand. The purpose for going to your first COP (Conference of the Parties) is to just have said you’ve gone to a COP and to assimilate the total chaos. I have to say that’s true. There were, I think, 40,000 people in the Blue Zone. There were three zones. The Green Zone is open to the public and they had displays and talks and things, and I didn’t actually go there.

My overarching takeaway is that (COP) is exclusive.

You had to take a Covid test every morning and upload it to a national website. There were long, snaking lines going through security, just like you go through at the airports, belt buckles off, everything. Forty-thousand people every morning needed to get into this place. And then there were basically two locations. One was pavilions. Here would be the Brazilian Pavilion and over there would be the indigenous peoples of Tropical Rainforest Pavilion and over there would be, you know, the Arctic Pavilion and Tuvalu with the hanging penguin that had been lynched in the corner. And it’s just amazing. And it was just a very confusing warren of little panels and small audiences constantly taking place.

That’s the first area. The second area is where the business was being taken care of. There were hundreds of computers available for reporters to file their stories. There was a great big room where you could go twice a day and there’d be an announcement of the latest climate negotiations. I didn’t discover the second place until a week in and it was two weeks long.

But my overarching takeaway is that (COP) is exclusive and the only way to get into the Blue Zone is if you have credentials. And so every nation has a handful of credentials and then there are sort of provincial or subnational groups that have credentials and you need to be hooked up with one of these groups in order to get in.

You don’t think that exclusivity is a good thing.

It’s a bad thing, and that was a major theme of the climate protests that were taking place out in the streets the whole time. I actually did not see the protests, but 100,000 people was a number that I saw. Greta Thunberg was speaking and exclusivity of the COP was a major complaint they had, and I have to agree 100%.

The criticism is that not much was done in terms of concrete change (at COP26). I mean, there is a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Developed countries said they’re going to get more resources to underdeveloped, more vulnerable countries, there is a commitment to curb methane emissions, to reverse forest loss and so forth. But (COP26) was really falling short of what the world needs to do to address climate change.

That’s because of the process. It’s a political process, which means it’s based on compromise, right? And when would you ever base your safety on compromise? When would you ever compromise on safety? But this is the process. And so fundamentally, the COP process and the UN process is flawed because it’s set up so that all member nations, which is all nations, have to agree on literally every word. So you’ve got Russia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, you’ve got these fossil-fuel dependent economies having to agree to the wording of a climate change statement or commitment.

And that’s why most of the wording that comes out in the Sixth Assessment Report from the (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which came out in August, the COP language, all these things are statements that any climate scientist would have said 10 years ago. And so they all come across as sort of mildly watered down.

And this is one of many reasons why we are slow to the mark in terms of getting a handle on this problem. The (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) nations pledged in 2015 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to stop warming at 2.0 zero degrees (Celsius) and to work hard towards stopping at 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2018, a report came out from the IPCC on what does 1.5 degrees C look like. It’s called 1.5 degrees C, it is the name of the report, and it revealed a host of nastiness. And the world then turned away from 2 degrees Celsius and 1.5 became the new target. We are now between 1.1 and 1.3 degrees Celsius of warming. We have two-tenths of a degree before we hit and miss 1.5 degrees Celsius. And built into the UN process is a ratcheting up of promises, so there were promises made in 2015.

And in fact, statistically speaking, the probability of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius based on the 2015 Paris Accord had a probability of zero.

There was a ratcheting up leading into the Glasgow COP and new promises, new pledges  — and the new probability of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees is 1.5%. It’s easy to remember, because it’s 1.5% probability of stopping, 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and something like a 36% probability of stopping at 2 degrees Celsius. Thirty-four percent probability of staying below 2 degrees Celsius. Those are the promises and nations don’t keep to their promises. Instead, there are the actual policies that they keep to. The policies that they keep to put us on a path to something above 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming, 2.7, 2.8. OK, so that’s our probable pathway based on the world’s coming together under the UN guidance.

But what this doesn’t take into account is that the Amazon has now flipped and largely become a source of greenhouse gases and is no longer a (carbon) sink for greenhouse gases. This is becoming true, in fact, of the entire terrestrial (biosphere), all of the photosynthetic communities on the continents. It is a crisis and emergency.

There is a direct relationship to climate crises affecting global trade and the empty shelves down at Longs and Safeway.

All of the photosynthetic communities on the continents are now on the edge of reaching their thermal maximum. Different ones will be set at different periods, but the projection is that when we emit CO2, about 30% of it is taken up by photosynthesis on land. The projection is that by 2040, just two decades from now, only 15% of it will be taken up by land. So this partner of ours, nature, which pulls down CO2, appears to be losing half of its capacity to buffer our greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, we have a major current called the conveyor belt, and that has slowed. The big portion of the conveyor belt which matters here is in the North Atlantic, and this is where warm water dives down to the deep Atlantic Ocean and the warm water takes heat down to the deep Atlantic and that comes from the air. When the ocean is warmed by the air, and that has slowed about 15% and is projected to continue slowing, there’s less heat being taken down to the deep ocean, meaning that that favors more heating of the air.

The Arctic Report card just came out.

We’re looking at, before mid-century, portions of the Arctic seeing rain exceed the amount of snow, and we already see portions of the tundra or the permafrost in net fall. Big, sort of postage stamps of the permafrost around the world are now releasing their greenhouse gases. And as the conveyor belt in the ocean slows, heat will build up in the ocean, around the southern ocean, around Antarctica, accelerating the melting of the ice sheet. And we saw in last week’s news from the American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans, a projection that we may be looking at the floating ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier collapsing within five years, which could lead to a very rapid 1 to 2 feet of sea-level rise, potentially more.


So, OK, last thing, an average 23% of greenhouse gas emissions are underreported. The Washington Post did that study and released it. So these promises  — and then the actual policies — they are way below the actual greenhouse gas emission reality and nature’s response to that. It’s not looking very good.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige traveled to Scotland and he played up how our 2045 plan (to achieve 100% clean energy) is a model. California has adopted it. But what should we be doing? What are some things that you would like to see done that at least can help take care of us here at home to mitigate climate change?

The key factor there is to recognize that so much of this is out of our control. (Hawaii Chief Energy Officer) Scott Glenn likes to point out — and he’s correct — that what Hawaii does is seen by the rest of the world. So we provide leadership even though our greenhouse gas emissions are a rounding error in the global carbon cycle, right? Whether or not we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t really affect the amount of global warming. But it would be unethical of us not to work hard in that regard, because if we decide we don’t need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, what’s to keep New York City from saying the same thing? Or Russia?

All that falls under mitigation. Along with that, we need to work very strongly on our — and I’m going to use an overused phrase — our sustainability and resilience. We are this remote group of islands. We cannot turn to a neighboring state and ask for water or medical supplies or food. And we really are not moving fast enough in terms of growing our own food, ensuring our own form of industry, ensuring that we continue to be a modern digital society as global trade begins to fray and decline.

And we’ve already seen the blackouts in the Port of Richmond (in Northern California) related to wildfires a couple of years ago. We also saw wildfires threatening another port in California, which shut it down for a couple of days. Maybe it was a week. And then we see the current buildup or blockage of global trade, but that’s for more economic reasons.

There is a direct relationship to climate crises affecting global trade and the empty shelves down at Longs and Safeway. And we need to get on top of that faster than we have been, and there are opportunities that haven’t been taken advantage of.

For instance, under food: what would it look like for state government and county government to subsidize warehouse food production? Vertical food production under specifically tuned LED lights that have the exact wavelength of photosynthesis of broccoli. You know, they’re doing that these days. You don’t need pesticides. You don’t need to destroy the land. We can keep portions of the land open for recharging our groundwater system. And so let’s shift over to that.

When there’s intense rainfall, most of it runs off into the ocean. It’s that long, light rain that is so important at recharging our aquifers, but we’re seeing less and less of that rain. We’re seeing more flooding rain that does not recharge aquifers very well. So we need to re-landscape some of our long watersheds so that we slow runoff and store it so it can filter into the ground. And there are indigenous practices which we need to take advantage of to catch water and allow the water to recharge our aquifers.

And so much of our rain — 30 to 40% — comes from fog drip in the upper portions of the watershed, where that whole ecosystem is exactly tuned to the clouds. And then catching the moisture, dripping it into the ground that feeds our aquifers. So accelerating the removal of invasives and protecting the upper portions of the watershed, that’s extremely important.

Are these things that the Legislature — that’s their kuleana — can do?

Yeah, these are things that need more money.

It comes down to resources in so many ways. Is there the willpower at the Legislature and with this governor? And then we’ll have a change in administrations and change in some of the offices (in next year’s elections). But have you sensed a growing support?

I really don’t get into the Leg very much, but every year they seem to do some great things. I mean, we now have a real estate transfer disclosure law if properties are in the sea level rise zone.

Inspired in no small part by what’s happened to homes on Oahu’s North Shore.

Actually, that’s a research product of ours — this sea level exposure area that’s come out of my research group. It’s available online, everybody knows where it is. It’s a GIS layer, it’s an internet map server. With those recent fundamental research tools that come out of SOEST, that come out of the UH, we can do things like make life safer.

Have you seen the pandemic sort of impact funding levels related to climate change, especially at the state level?

We’re in an era of pandemics, and it’s been identified that land use is the No. 1 stressor that has generated pandemics. Basically, we’re talking about biodiversity loss, sort of writ large. The Northern Hemisphere’s developed world is engaging in extraction of mineral, lumber, soil, all sorts of natural resources from the still biodiverse Southern Hemisphere.

And it’s the new form of colonialism. It is consumption. It’s all of the things that we all need that are largely coming from unexploited, biodiverse lands around the tropics, and those underdeveloped countries are willing to sell off their resources because it’s a quick payday.

But it’s no investment in their future. And this gets back to what’s wrong with COP. As we destroy natural ecosystems, we are disturbing natural balances with pathogenic microbes that are in balance, in equilibrium, with their ecosystems that can come in contact with human communities. And there are basically four venues where this happens. One is extreme weather events where intense heat or flooding or wildfire bring pathogenic microbes in contact with human communities. And in the case of smoke inhalation or extreme heat, human immunity systems are weakened, and we are vulnerable to these microbes.

The second venue is concentrated animal feeding operations, where we are raising animals in a warehouse and when one of them dies from a disease, we pull out the carcass. We pull in a new animal. Evolution tells us that there’s a natural selection of the virus, or the bacteria, that will allow it to grow more and more virulent because it can afford to kill its host.

In concentrated animal feeding operations we are creating, for instance, avian versions of strains of avian flu that have a 60 to 70% fatality rate. Now, luckily, no avian flu has yet morphed into human to human contact. You can still only get avian flu from a bird, and so it hasn’t reached the status of pandemic, but 60 to 70% mortality. And you only get that when you create an environment that encourages that type of evolution.

The third venue is palm oil production, the destruction of rainforests and bushmeat and just other forms of contact for wet markets, where we have microbes making their way from the natural world into the human community.

And the fourth venue is expanded vectors. We have ticks moving into new communities because it’s getting warmer. The tropics are expanding. We have mosquitoes, ticks, even deer, other vectors of disease moving into communities that they never had access to before. So in this era of pandemics, climate change plays a huge role, as well as our consumption habits and our broken global food system.

What do you say to someone who doubts that climate change is real?

I don’t bother with them anymore. I’ve learned you don’t change adults’ minds. It is the rare individual who’s an adult and remains open-minded and spends their life seeking information rather than bias.

Do tornadoes in December through Kentucky help change minds?

They may, but there’s always an explanation for this statistical anomaly.

“We’ve had ice ages before, we’ve had warming before.”

It’s all part of the Dunning-Kruger effect (on cognitive bias), right? The idiots in the room, you give them a little bit of information and they suddenly think they understand how things work.

Is there something positive you would share with us today?

You didn’t tell me you’re going to hit me with the hard questions.

You could just simply say no.

This has been easy so far, so you put off the hard ones at the end!

Well, again, I’m thinking here you mentioned how Hawaii can work hard to do things. We’ve done well ethically. It’s the right thing today to do. It may not make any difference at all in the global picture, but we have to in fact continue to. It’s the season of hope, because otherwise I’m hearing someone say, well, India and China aren’t doing anything, why should we even bother? I’ll be dead in 30 years anyway.

The fact is they are doing quite a bit, but we are the No. 1 cumulative polluter of the atmosphere.

India and China have made progress?

In fact, that’s where I think COPs should go — to the growth of fossil-fuel usage in the developing world, because they want and deserve modern transportation systems and education systems and medical systems and food systems. And all that is most easily done with the fossil-fuel driven network that is in place. They’re working hard on converting to renewable energy in the developing world, but they are where the challenge lies. Because that’s where science says we need to focus.

Where is there hope? I actually heard last night in a movie on Netflix, someone used that phrase — “Hope is not a strategy.” And I’ve been using that, thinking I was the clever one. But apparently it’s been out there before.

I actually think that Hawaii is one of the right places to be in the future that we see developing because we want to be isolated. Borders have become and are going to become conflict zones. Even more so, I think there are major security problems with food and water and extreme weather, which are driving populations to be displaced. The World Bank projected over a quarter million people becoming displaced just this decade within their own borders. We see the Syrian conflict having displaced over 4 million people, and they’ve wanted to move into the EU. And just this morning, there’s yet another drowning of over 60 people trying to cross from North Africa into the EU across the Mediterranean.

It led to Brexit. Fundamentally, Brexit is the reaction of the British people to wanting to shut their borders down.

Hawaii can actually be one of those lifeboat communities, one of those places where we can thrive.

Border zones are the future conflict zones, and so an isolated group of islands automatically gets an advantage there. I wish we were a little further north, but the Pacific plate is heading in the right direction. It’s just a little slow plate tectonics analogy there for you, folks, that about the rate that our fingernails grow is how fast Hawaii is moving to the North. It should be a little faster. And I do think we are going to see the collapse of huge parts of our global trade system. And so Hawaii will grow more and more isolated.

And that’s why we need to grow more and more self-sufficient. And we can actually be one of those lifeboat communities, one of those places where we can thrive.

There’s a paper called “Nodes of Persisting Complexity,” and it actually is asking the question, where are those communities where complex economic socioeconomic relationships will persist in a warming world? They only looked at nations, so Hawaii didn’t count, but it was clear that Japan, New Zealand, the UK — isolated island-based communities were the ones that had the advantage here. So there’s some hope for you.


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