woman smiling
Haunani Kane (Photo credit: Todd Glaser)

An assistant professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, was honored as a leader in climate and justice by being recognized as a Grist 50 “Fixer.” Haunani Kane is driving fresh solutions to the climate crisis and helping to pave the way for a greener, more just future.

Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization, selected leaders who have found a unique way to apply their strengths, creativity and time to tackling the biggest problems our planet faces. Referred to as “fixers,” these are “dynamic doers who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and dive headlong into building and championing better alternatives.”

In 2018, Kane became the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a PhD in geology at UH Mānoa and now, she is studying sea-level rise and island resiliency in Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Islands in an effort to protect land, communities and culture. Her research combines coastal geology, reconstructions of past climate conditions, and the perspectives of a native islander to investigate how islands, reefs and island people are impacted by changes in climate.

What is happening to my home?

Growing up as a surfer and voyager on the windward side of Oʻahu, Kane saw firsthand how climate impacts, such as erosion, threatened the places she loved.

“It led me to have a lot of questions about what is going on, what is happening to my home,” she said.

That curiosity led her to pursue those questions in an academic setting. Kane’s dissertation focused on how islands in Micronesia and Samoa were influenced by a period of sea-level rise 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, which could offer lessons for present-day adaptations.

“I think right now is a really exciting time for many of us island people—because for many of us, we are the first islanders in our field,” Kane said. “We not only have the Western teachings of, say, how our climate systems work, but we also come into these spaces with the values of the places that we come from—the perspectives that have been shared over multiple generations.”

Helping students determine solutions

When she was a student, none of her teachers were Native Hawaiian. She became a faculty member at UH in part because she wanted to teach other young people like herself.

Among other offerings, Kane teaches an online, asynchronous course, reaching students who may not be able to work within a conventional classroom setting. She’s also a lead scientist at the MEGA Lab, a Hawaiʻi-based nonprofit that aims to engage underserved communities in science and ocean conservation.

“As the world continues to rapidly change in the near future we will need to be creative in developing equitable solutions,” said Kane. “I believe the way to do that is by including communities, and their students into the process and allowing them to determine the solutions and vulnerabilities of their home. As scientists I see ourselves as resources to help facilitate this process.”

–By Marcie Grabowski