Climate Changes Requires Change
Climate change affects the well-being of our people, the strength of our economy, and the health of our ecosystems. Where we build, what food we grow, and how we maintain our national security are all affected by gradual changes in our climate spurred by natural and man-made causes.
Two years ago, I chaired a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Honolulu on “Climate Change Impacts and Responses in Island Communities.” The increasing pressures of climate change are evident in Hawaii – from rising sea levels to changes in fish populations and coral reefs. We are both vulnerable and susceptible.
As a society, we find it easier to react to a large catastrophic event rather than adjust our behavior to accommodate the long-term, incremental changes which are occurring in our climate. The Hawaii tsunami scare in February demonstrated that once the warning was sounded, there was a plan, civil defense was mobilized, and the people responded accordingly. Had there been an incident, there was a system in place to support the recovery.
Climate change is much more subtle and may seem like it does not demand our immediate attention. However, we should recognize that consistent change, however small, can aggregate into potentially devastating circumstances.
Over the years, $24.5 million has put Hawaii at the forefront of our nation’s response to climate change. This includes the Mauna Loa Observatory, a one of a kind research facility on Hawaii Island, which has continuously monitored and collected data relating to changes in the atmosphere since the 1950’s. Their carbon dioxide observations have proved a rise in greenhouse gases.
As our climate changes, the weather will become more severe. Scientific models are being developed and implemented in Hawaii by federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the University of Hawaii to track these changes, like rising sea levels. These changes can be compounded by an increase in severe weather events that trigger high surf, tsunami and flooding. Improving our understanding of weather patterns will allow us to better prepare the public and our first responders for severe weather.
Hawaii is home to two state of the art warning and monitoring centers – the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory. Those centers team with the 24-7 operational presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and county civil defense, and first responders to ensure the safety of our communities. This team is also prepared to assess the damage, aid the recovery, provide relief and will work to mitigate future harm.
Now that we know our climate is changing we must adapt our behavior to account for those changes while working to ensure that we do not make matters worse and hasten even more severe consequences.
Island communities, by necessity, embody a culture of innovation and resilience. Adaptation is innate to islanders and we have time tested strategies that support our cultural and societal resilience. The ahupua’a of old Hawaii, from the mountain to the sea, is a fitting example. Understanding and incorporating the lessons of the past will help prepare us for the future.
A modern day example is occurring on the Windward side of Oahu. Native Hawaiians are working to restore the Heeia wetlands into productive, organic taro fields. Using a combination of traditional science and cultural practices, the Heeia project is addressing the impacts of rising sea levels, increased drought, and flooding.
The taro lo’i is expected to decrease the sediment runoff from flooding, which in turn lessens the impact on coral reefs. It also produces a better environment for food production, and helps hold the water longer on the land to recharge the aquifer. A sea level rise has resulted in a higher level of salinity in the lo’i. To adapt to this new challenge, the Heeia project is working to identify the varieties of taro that are most tolerant to salt. I am pleased to support this effort through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Ecosystem Restoration program.
We can all do our part by first acknowledging our changing climate, and then by changing our own behavior to adapt, conserve, and commit to a healthy thriving ecosystem. Hawaii is in the national spotlight on many of these fronts. Let us continue our leadership. Our children and grandchildren demand it.