Editorial: Invest funds, time on erosion fixes

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Gov. Josh Green has ambitious plans to address climate change in Hawaii. In a press release last week, he promised “bold action” to “rescue what’s dear to us, to preserve our way of life.”

Green said he would recommit Hawaii to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors “committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

He created a Climate Advisory Panel, which will guide the appointment of a Cabinet-level climate adviser to coordinate climate initiatives among agencies.

He will pursue federal and private investments in clean energy development, including solar, energy efficiency and storage technologies.

But what generated the headlines was his plan to tap the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus to create a $100 million Climate Impact Fund “to fight climate change and preserve the state’s natural resources.” Announcing the fund at the Jan. 9 kickoff of Climate Action Week, Green said he envisions the $100 million as seed money, to grow over time with public and private contributions.

While $100 million won’t win the war, it’s a promising start. Still, it’s a lot of money and it should be spend wisely, with careful oversight and defined goals.

The fund could advance any number of important initiatives: reducing carbon emissions, growing more trees, supporting local agriculture, expanding the use of clean energy and electric vehicles, mitigating coastal erosion — the list goes on and on. It’s hard to know where to begin, and it would be easy to spread the money around, in a scattershot way.

It would be better for Green and his climate gurus to lay the foundation for real long-term progress on our most intractable problems, the kind that will take years of sustained — and most important, coordinated — effort to solve.

One such problem is coastal erosion. For an island state, rising sea levels cut to the heart of our environment and economy, as they eat away at some of our most precious assets: our beaches, near-shore communities and the essential roadways that link them.

This cannot be stopped. In fact, we are getting a preview, in dramatic fashion, as North Shore homes slide off their foundations toward the ocean. For some island nations in the Pacific, the crisis is existential.

In a Star-Advertiser Island Voices commentary (“Use surplus to protect Sunset Beach,” Dec. 25), Chip Fletcher and Colin Lee of the University of Hawaii suggested spending some $115 million to buy roughly 50 parcels from the bridge at Sunset Beach to Rocky Point, eventually clearing them and allowing nature to restore the coastline.

That would be a start, a sort of proof-of-concept effort. Of course, it won’t be enough. Studies going back years have identified the breadth of the problem as well as our most vulnerable shorelines. One report by the Hawaii Climate Commission noted that a 3.2-foot rise in sea levels could potentially cost the state 34% of land designated for urban use, with more than 6,500 structures compromised or lost.

A successful long-range strategy would take the combined efforts of many parties — among them state and county land-use regulators, scientists, private homeowners, businesses, legislators (with the power of the purse) — all coordinating their efforts to achieve specific outcomes.

That may sound next to impossible, but it’s happened before. In October 2008, after years of effort by the Lingle administration, the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative was signed, committing the state to a renewable energy future. Today the HCEI, with its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045, guides just about every decision made about energy development in Hawaii.

The state’s budget surplus won’t last long. But while we have it, let’s tap some of it to invest in solutions that will. That would truly be “bold action” to “rescue what’s dear to us, to preserve our way of life.”