The sky was smudged burnt orange when Koko and I went out walking this morning, the third in our new/old neighborhood. It felt so good to see the peaceful pasture, feel the slosh of wet grass beneath my feet, smell the slightly medicinal scent of camphor, the muskiness of hinano hanging from the hala trees.
All the weariness and tedium of moving slipped away when I woke in the night to the sound of hard rain, sat on my porch and watched birds flitting among the heliconia and lauae fern, stood outside in utter blackness, save for the light offered by stars. We are back where we belong.
“It’s the start of a new era,” said my neighbor Andy in greeting when we met while walking yesterday. I’d seen him at Saturday’s conference on global warming, and was curious about his take on things.
He’d left the event a little early because he was freezing cold, an irony not lost on many in attendance who shivered their way through the four-hour program in KCC’s theater, where the AC for some reason couldn’t be lowered.
Andy and I agreed that the first two speakers — Dr.Tom Giambelluca, a UH geography professor and rainfall expert, and Dr. Gordon Tribble, a USGS stream flow expert — had us wondering about the severity of the issue, since their predictions were couched in such qualifying language as “may” and “could.”
Still, they did present evidence that the Islands are warming, especially at higher elevations, which spells trouble for the endangered forest birds and plants that are barely hanging on there, and also at night, which similarly disrupts ecosystems and biological processes.
We’re also seeing a significant decrease in winter rainfall, as well as in our base stream flow, which has serious implications for water availability and agriculture. They know these things are happening, but aren't sure yet just why, or how it will all play out in terms of future weather patterns.
But the tone shifted dramatically when Dr. Chip Fletcher, a UH professor and expert on sea level rise, gave his talk. He said that he was a denier and skeptic in the 1990s, because the evidence wasn't compelling. But since then, he’s come on board, along with the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists.
It’s clear, he said, that the CO2 level is at its highest in 15 million years, the rate of loss in the ice mass is accelerating and the sea level is already rising to the point where it’s “changing lives” in some low-lying islands in Micronesia. Heck, salt water is already oozing into the streets of Waikiki at high tide.
Chip is expecting the sea level to rise about 1 meter by the end of the century, and said a major problem in Hawaii will be drainage. As the sea level rises, flooding will be triggered by less rainfall, especially in coastal communities that are backed by wetlands, like Hanalei, Kapaa and Wailua.
Chip ran a cool little clip that shows how that 1 meter sea level rise will impact Kauai’s coast, and it’s pretty sobering. Meanwhile, some parts of the island, like Haena, are experiencing severe coatal erosion. Looks like Mother Nature will eventually take out Joe Brescia’s house atop the burials, but ya gotta wonder why the county and state are still letting people build so damn close to the water there.
But then, why did they allow all those folks to rebuild at Poipu, where Iniki’s storm surge wiped the coastline clean? Shoots, the debris line extended all the way into the Kukuiula project now being built.
At any rate, Chip said “we should retreat from the coastline,” an assertion that seemed to contradict his later endorsement of a coastal path, including the stretch proposed for Wailua Beach.
I called him yesterday for another story I’m working on, and asked him about the Path, too. Chip said he agreed to advise the county on the Path only if they promised “to remove it the moment it begins to erode or interferes with beach processes and agreed it would never be defended with a seawall or other device at the cost of the beach itself.”
The county assured him that would be the case, and wanted to proceed with the project, even though Chip told them that a coastal path is not likely — even in the best scenario — to last more than a few decades.
So that’s where we’re at now, moving forward with a multi-million project that will ultimately be doomed, along with the expensive road widening there at Wailua. As one person from the audience asked: “Is anyone listening to what you’re saying?”
Andy left before Dr. Paul Jokiel delivered his sad account of how the increasing levels of CO2 are causing acidification of the oceans, with the result that we’ll see more of the major bleaching incidents that are already occurring in Hawaii. “We’re going into something geologically very new of having our reefs dissolve as we go through this century.” And that, of course, has dramatic implications for ocean ecosystems, fishing, recreation and protection from storms.
Paul said he didn’t like to deliver a doom and gloom talk without offering folks some hope. He then laid out a number of things we could do to reverse the CO2 levels, including eating less meat (or simply eating more healthfully), adopting alternative energies, painting roofs white and other relatively easy steps.
While some of the alternative energy measures are expensive, they pale in comparison to the money we're spending on war and already spent bailing out our financial institutions and jump-starting our economy, which he pegged at about $8.9 trillion.
“We’re just going to have to get it together and do the equivalent of building the interstate or sending a man to the moon,” Paul said. “I see it as a great opportunity to bring our civilization to a level that’s sustainable.”
And that’s when it struck me that what’s really at issue here are values. We can continue on with business as usual (BAU), which is expected to result in a global temperature increase of 6 degrees C. Or we can literally chill by ditching the greed and excess and shifting toward a more equitable, sustainable society.
No wonder so many on the right find global climate change so threatening. Addressing it goes hand in hand with the kind of social change they're bitterly resisting.
“So what do you think it will take for people to make that shift?” I asked Andy as we walked.
“Something really big and serious, like Manhattan flooding, that can be definitively linked to global warming,” he said.
Until then, looks like BAU can be expected.