Sink or Swim: Hawai‘i’s Climate Crisis

Regarding climate change, there has been a muddling of two primary issues by many critics: the first being that climate change is real and policy will have to be developed to react to the human cost of changing environments, the second that maybe we should do something about it by developing new forms of energy. This is a developing conversation being held on global transactional stages, in classrooms, and increasingly, in the arts. What has changed in the 21st century is that indigenous peoples have a voice in the discussion, and are offering real, and at times contentious, solutions about how to react to rising waters.


You don’t need an article in a magazine to tell you that climate change is real, and that there are consequences to it. Political scientists since the First World War have argued that the great conflicts of the globe have, and will continue to be, fights over essential resources such as petroleum.

Since 1988, Station ALOHA, a research buoy and base north of Oahu, has been collecting data. What marine scientists are finding is alarming. In just 22 years, Station ALOHA indicates that sea surface temperature is rising, that the ocean is getting saltier and more acidic, and that flow from the island’s streams is down. 

Colder waters in the ocean hold more carbon dioxide, and there’s less cold water. The natural system is being affected at the base of the food chain, where the terapod shells of zooplankton are corroding.

The trade winds that have brought water to the Pali are changing too; clouds are shallowing, delivering less rain in the upper watershed, decreasing 6 percent per decade over the last several decades. According to marine scientists, wet areas are going to get wetter, and dry areas are going to get dryer, as we have intensified the water cycle. 

We can expect more episodic heat events during the summer, which will spike demand on emergency facilities as we try to escape the oppressive hotness by cranking up the AC, causing longer daily draws on the electrical grid. The Pacific is due to experience more hurricanes (of which we’re apparently overdue), and more intense storms.

More bad news: Hawai‘i is the most oil-dependent state in the United States. Annually, residents pay nearly seven billion dollars for petroleum-based energy. Though there was much talk at the federal level about making climate change a priority, there has been little action.

In January, President Obama delivered his second inaugural address and said, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

So it was a shocker when the 2013 budget came in silent on what Obama will do to aggressively reduce carbon pollution by the biggest emitters like power plants and automobiles. Regarding dealing appropriately with the effects of climate change, both in human resources and in making strident moves towards energy independence, we are, it appears, on our own.

Part of the chill on intense action at the federal level has to do with advancements in hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” in which large amounts of fresh water combined with sand and other substances are blasted at high pressure down wells drilled into deep layers of shale to get oil.

The development of fracking in continental America means that the United States will likely have oil resources for several decades into the future. These conversations made their way to Hawai‘i, where several legislators pushed bills and hearings to discuss fracking, which had many advocates scratching their heads.

“Aloha, legislative geniuses, there’s no oil under the Hawaiian Islands,” says native Hawaiian attorney Mililani Trask.

A little good news: Hawai‘i is slowly becoming more efficient as annual oil consumption is going down. Modeled largely after California’s lofty ambitions, Hawai‘i is one of 23 states to commit to reducing greenhouse gases.

Acts have been passed in recent years for tax credits, portfolio standards, and a fee on imported energy. Unfortunately, those fees have been siphoned off to the state general fund.

By 2030, Hawai’i has the goal to attain 40 percent of energy consumption from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal.

There has been some political advancement. Wind energy is proliferating across the islands. In 2009, a federal and state tax incentive for solar panels caused a number of businesses to install dark glass on the roofs of homes across the island chain, most being legitimate, and some, fly-by-night operations bent on cashing in on the green bubble. It is the debate over geothermal, however, which has become the topic of much friction.


Climate Refugees

The State of Hawai‘i has a model for what may happen when the waters rise: Micronesia. The waters of the central Pacific, due to scientific forces too complicated to discuss in this article, are rising at a greater rate than in other parts of the planet, which has led to an increase in the high tides and watermarks for many islands there.

And already, in the confederated states of Micronesia, indigenous populations lost much of their land, and by extension, their culture, after nuclear testing in the Pacific; the sort of history that has peace activists getting wild-eyed and yelling at television screens. This loss of culture has been exacerbated by climate change.

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, Ph.D., has been primarily interested in those human, cultural stories of climate change. In April 2013, he spoke to Hawaii Public Radio about possible change to the term “climate crisis” regarding what his countrymen are facing.

“Climate change is a reality that will give rise to migration,” Kabutaulaka explains. “Both within countries and without countries. Thus far, it’s been within countries in Micronesia, from places like the Caroline Islands to Bougainville. Migrations out of the Pacific have been happening as a result of socio-economic issues. Out-migration results in people moving to urban centers, former territories, or, here in Hawai‘i.”

This is happening right now. The President of Kiribati has been making some stunning speeches recently, explaining that if his people are to leave their flooding homeland, they must do so with dignity.

Swap “out-migration” for “refugee” and you have a nearly identical sociological model for the displacement that is caused by war: that of a people being pushed off of a homeland because of the ravages in the countryside; families and individuals leaving for urban centers hoping to find work, services, and a viable future.

Like the way that refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were forced to flee devastated homelands in the 1960s and 1970s, creating an Indochinese diaspora across the Western world, just slower. The threat is less that indigenous peoples will cease to live, but that centuries of cultural development will be absorbed into a western Americanized monoculture.

Those who don’t succeed risk ending up homeless and jobless. It is completely appropriate to be freaked out by all of this. In Hawai‘i, it means the alteration, and arguably the destruction of cultural activities near the shore. That is a lot of culture to drown.

All this bad news, of which the vast majority of us are incapable of having any control over, can make even the most ardent of advocates want to respond by taking a nap.

The response from students has been in large part, poetic. In the spring of 2013, a conference called Waves of Change, organized by poet and Ph.D. candidate Craig Santos Perez and others at the University of Hawai‘i, attempted to tackle both the scientific and humanistic challenges facing indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

It was a gorgeous usual-suspects list of potluck peacenik activists, the type of students that would have ended up on Nixon’s COINTELPRO watch list in the 1960s, or a no-fly list in the early 2000s. Over drinks and an organic potluck, organizers coined the term “climate colonialism,” and chanted amongst themselves: “Remember. Recommit. Resist.”


Heat, Water, and Power

The voice of indigenous peoples has been moving toward the center of the ecological debate in recent decades. Indigenous scholars and academics offer differing perspectives on environmentalism, which in Hawai‘i has, at times, been on the opposite side of the aisle from those advocating for Native Hawaiian rights.

Some scholars are discussing the cultural ramifications of energy independence primarily by looking to the past. Native Hawaiian scholar Kalei Nuuhiwa recently discussed her research into belief systems regarding akua and Pele in particular at a symposium in April 2013.

Her work has not been limited to the chants, which were dutifully recorded throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but extended to the discussions that Hawaiians had in Hawaiian language newspapers that were once flourished a century ago.

“The two things that geothermal require are heat and water,” she said in speech that alternated between Hawaiian, Pidgin, and academic English.

“Wherever she travels, things grow,” Nuuhiwa explains of Pele. “There is a whole episode in which we can expect Pele to move in her activities. It has to do with the flow. She must continue to make earth. As long as the earth is hot, where you see heat, that is her place. If you put a house there, she will consume it.”

She went on to describe a chant that delineates the boundary of Pele, beginning on Hawai‘i Island in Ka‘u and ending at the sea in Puna.

“That is her realm. As long as we allow her to do her thing there, we’re good. If we go into that realm, we are crossing the boundary of kanawai [law].”

Innnovations Development Group (IDG) is a corporation that is claiming to let Pele do her thing while providing firm energy, the type that is more reliable and non-dependent on fickle sunlight or wind power. There has been a single geothermal power plant on Hawai‘i Island since 1993, run by Puna Geothermal Ventures.

That plant delivers up to 30 megawatts of firm, renewable energy to Hawaii Electric Light Company for distribution to Hawai‘i Island customers, providing nearly 20 percent of Big Island’s electricity needs. It is the only commercial geothermal power plant in the state.

IDG would like to create another plant, using what its Indigenous and Community Advisor Mililani Trask calls a “native-to-native” business model. IDG’s commercial, which could be seen replaying during breaks of the recent Merrie Monarch hula competition and celebration, shows the text “culturally appropriate, socially responsible, economically equitable,” while prominent Hawaiian cultural advocates voice their support for the project.

The Trask family has a backstory familiar to most residents of Hawai‘i. The Trasks have been at the forefront of Native Hawaiian advocacy from well before statehood through Hawai‘i’s era of McCarthyism, during which several family members were red-baited for discussing the functional equality of Hawaiians as individuals and as a people.

Mililani Trask is often introduced by way of her sister, Haunani Kay-Trask, whose scholarly critique of militarism and tourism has influenced countless activists over the last several decades. A brief digression: Whatever one thinks of the complexity of Haunani’s advocacy, the depth of her work outside of strict advocacy cannot be denied.

As a poet, her work will live on in the future, equaled by Carolyn Forché and Pablo Neruda for the gorgeous lyric connections between the personal and the political; their humanism overpowering the overwrought analysis of the present; to live as long as there is a reason to recite prose regarding hegemonic power in the Pacific.

Mililani is one of the lawyers of the family. I speak with her on the lanai of a home above the Nu‘uanu cemetery that IDG uses as its corporate headquarters, with Honolulu spread out under a tropical sky before us.

As the former Vice Chair for Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization based out of The Hague, Netherlands, she has argued for fundamental human rights and indigenous self-determination with some of the most articulate peace and justice advocates in the world.

She has studied with Mother Teresa. She has represented Native Hawaiian political groups since the 1980s. She keeps her shades on for our interview.

Judgments as to whether Mililani Trask is a saint, or, as has been said of her recent advocacy for the Public Land Development Corporation, something else entirely, are beyond this article. What is certain is that she is a lawyer.

“I was a human rights advocate, not a businesswoman,” she explains. “We have the best opportunity of nearly anywhere in the world to become energy self-sufficient. The approach thus far has been American, continental,” Trask says.

“We don’t need billions of dollars for an undersea cable. Moloka‘i and Lana‘i could be independently served, and not subservient to O‘ahu’s energy needs. We know how to do it.”

In making the ideological connection between electrical power and socio-political power, Trask makes some surprising statements: “We have seen more movement out of the military than out of the state in terms of renewable energy. That’s because they realize that energy is a matter of national security. There is no real strategic plan in the state regarding energy. There is no chapter discussing how to make this happen in the law.

“Go back 25 years, we were excited about phones with buttons on them,” she says. “Technology has changed, and we must evolve with it. We have steps to do this. We have identified the indigenous resources available to us.”

She then explains to me the fundamentals of a geothermal power plant using the table that separates us and a few coasters. A much more sophisticated explanation was created by IDG for presentations across the state and to investors.

The process seems simple enough: Water goes in, creates steam heated by the earth, steam turns a turbine, and the water is put in pools to cool. We get firm power. It is a system that has been developed significantly in Italy, Iceland, and the Philippines.

“When we proceed, we must find a balance between advocacy and business practices,” Trask says. “As Hawaiians, we retain the self-determination to manage our own resources, with our own values. The time is now.”

I make the mistake of asking Mililani Trask a question she does not like. When I ask how this advocacy fits in with relation to her previous work in peace advocacy, she was not quiet in responding, “What are you getting at?” flushing a pair of mynah birds from the ledge next to me where they were resting.

“Yes, this is about peace. Peace arises out of silence. Peace also arises out of a fair allocation of resources.” I quietly look across the lanai, towards the rising sea. I get the sense that this conversation is just getting started.

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