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New assessment summarizes climate-related threats to Hawai‘i

The National Climate Assessment showed that water supplies and indigenous knowledge, among other things can be affected

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A recent assessment by the National Climate Assessment,  released on Nov. 23, detailed the impacts of climate change on Hawai‘i’s economy, environment and communities while also making suggestions to reduce the risks they bring.

Chapter 27 in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, titled “Hawai‘i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands,” focused on risks to water supplies, ecosystems and biodiversity, coastal communities, marine services and indigenous communities.

Several researchers from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa who helped author the chapter described the precarious position Hawai‘i is in.

“Pacific islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts due to their exposure and isolation, small size, low elevation (in the case of atolls), and concentration of infrastructure and economy along the coasts,” the assessment said.

The assessment also said that because there is limited fresh water, which comes primarily from rainfall, drought is common and can be exacerbated by climate change. Climate change can also increase flooding, erosion and contamination of fresh water sources by salt water. 

The assessment predicted that all near-shore coral reefs will experience annual coral bleaching by 2050 because of increasing temperatures.

Climate change will also affect indigenous cultures according to the assessment, which said, “The rich body of traditional knowledge is place-based and localized and is useful in adaptation planning because it builds on intergenerational sharing of observations.”

Prof. Chip Fletcher, associate dean for student affairs at the department of Earth Sciences, at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), said the assessment details what many climate scientists already know, but it makes that information more available to the public.

“A unique element of this is that it brings it all together in one place,” he said. “The assessment, the report itself, is presented to the public through an online portal where it is very accessible and readable to non-specialists.”

Fletcher was one of the authors of the assessment. He said that no new research was put into the assessment—it is an analysis of existing research.

The assessment’s takeaway for the public is to act now, which is happening in the Pacific region.

“Groups are coming together to minimize damage and disruption from coastal flooding and inundation as well as other climate-related impacts,” the assessment said. “Early intervention can lower economic, environmental, social, and cultural costs and reduce or prevent conflict and displacement from ancestral land and resources.”

Such early interventions have to balance the increasing industrialization of the world, which is consuming an increasing amount of energy.

“Meeting this demand for new energy will entail everything we can do with regard to renewable energy, but it’s also very likely to include the use of fossil fuels and so most economists around the world who pay attention to this are projecting a rise in carbon dioxide emissions in the next several decades,” Fletcher said. “This is exactly what we cannot afford to do.”

The NCA looks at climate change impacts around the United States and works with a team of over 300 experts to summarize how climate change is currently affecting the country.

Other climate-related topics include air quality, forests, transportation, land cover and biodiversity.

Regarding climate change as a whole, Fletcher urged the scientific community and the public to do what they can.

“I think that we should not be afraid. We should not be optimistic. I think what we need to be is courageous. We need to step outside our comfort zone,” he said. “I think that climate scientists, in addition to continuing to doing research, also need to engage in public activism. I think people everywhere, even though they are not climate scientists, should read up on this.”