man smiling at the beach
Chip Fletcher

This editorial by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Chip Fletcher ran in The Star Advertiser on June 2, 2022.

Continued human development requires a healthy and resilient planet. Yet we are surrounded by signs that accelerating climate change is driving widespread and rapid changes to our world. Thousands of reproducible scientific studies highlight that climate change poses severe threats to human health, global trade, food production, freshwater resources, public safety, and more.

These threats apply here in Hawaiʻi, and around the world. Many changes due to greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level. These underscore the need for drastic emission reductions to safeguard humanities future.

Clint Churchill and Mark Polivka deserve a clear rebuke of the misinformation they contributed to our public dialog in their recent column (“Realities of fossil fuels, 100% renewable energy in our future,” Star-Advertiser, Island Voices, May 26). They argue that “we need to take a reasoned approach to fossil fuel usage.” This is at best blithe ignorance and at worst immoral and greed-driven deception. This opinion piece encourages us to sit back while the rest of the world struggles to solve this problem for us.

First, let’s clear up the science behind greenhouse gasses and water vapor. Fossil fuel burning is responsible for about 86% of annual carbon dioxide emissions; the rest comes from deforestation, wildfires and poor soil conservation. Heat trapped by carbon dioxide drives an increase in humidity (water vapor), which traps even more heat that would otherwise escape to space. The short residence time of water vapor, lasting an average eight to 10 days in the air, means it is incapable of causing climate change on its own.

The relationship between carbon dioxide and water vapor is an “amplifying feedback.” Carbon dioxide remains in the air over decades to centuries, depending on the planet’s capacity to reabsorb it. The scale of recent changes across the climate system, and the present state of many aspects of the system, are unprecedented over many centuries. How much of today’s climate change is caused by humans? All of it—period.

Next let’s discuss the practicality of transitioning off of fossil fuels. Hawaiʻi is already a beacon of excellence and leadership in showing the world how to protect our shared future and that of our children. Utilities across the state, along with policymakers and the private sector, have shown tremendous skill and collaboration to get as far as we have.

Kauaʻi has moved faster than any other county toward a 100% renewable energy future. So how impractical has it been for that island’s local utility, which now generates approximately 70% of its energy from renewable sources? Well, if having the lowest-cost electricity in the state is impractical, then sign us up!

That’s right, despite being the smallest electric utility in the state, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative somehow also has the lowest rates. Why? Because it decided about 15 years ago to make this transformation happen—and it has succeeded.

Yes, Oʻahu is more land-constrained than Kauaʻi, and no, we cannot afford to simply blanket the West Side with utility solar farms. But exporting our energy problem to somewhere else does not align with the value of mālama ʻāina. We’re already at 32.8% renewable energy today and we absolutely can meet our own needs here on Oʻahu. Part of that means agreeing that our needs are not infinite and that we see ourselves as part of, instead of master over, our local environment.

Meeting these goals means moving toward zero emissions in every facet of our society: transportation, buildings, agriculture, all of it, all while looking out for and helping those who can least afford it. No one expects it to happen overnight, but comforting ourselves with the idea that it is impractical or more costly than doing nothing is dangerous propaganda. Notably, it is propaganda that continues to enrich the wealthy few who control the fossil fuel industry both locally and globally.

The future we are building together will be more equitable, cleaner, and much more in line with our cultural heritage of loving the land and each other, than our fossil fuel past has been.