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Global warming hits Hawai‘i

And Hawai‘i hits back

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global warming at the beach

The waters around Hawai‘i have been warming since the 1950s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I had a prominent politician once tell me, ‘I think sea level is rising because we have so many more tourists now and they go in the water and that makes the sea level rise,’” Professor Charles (Chip) Fletcher, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and professor of geology and geophysics, said. 

He is well qualified to explain that rising ocean levels in Hawai‘i and around the world is not because of tourists cajoling in the water: it is global warming. 


If I recycle my water bottle, I feel like I saved the planet. The truth is that my environmental heroics are too little, too late and too egocentric. Global warming is happening, and it will keep happening. The truth is that climate change is a systemic issue of the human race. One person’s shorter shower and another’s rooftop tomato garden, while progressive toward an environmentally aware society, are not enough to effectively interrupt global warming. It will take the united front of us and our world leaders to change the course of climate change.

Without that, our planet’s trajectory will worsen. The east O‘ahu beaches I grew up building sand castles on have little to no sand left between the Pacific Ocean and the public access walkways. One day, the walkway will be drowned and the road behind it. I do not think the tourists swimming in the water caused that. 

Hawai‘i is not isolated from the multitude of impacts caused by climate change. Fletcher is one of five members of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission. According to their website, the objective of the commission is “to gather the latest science and information on climate change impacts to Hawai‘i and provide advice and recommendations to the mayor, City Council, and executive departments as they look to draft policy and engage in planning for future climate scenarios.”

The Commission recently created a government report giving information on an issue, known as White Paper, entitled, “Climate Change Brief.” The public report reinforces “the need for an urgent and sweeping transformation in our energy sources, food systems and land-use practices to achieve a decarbonized world economy,” according to its purpose outline. 

“It is a scholarly piece all coming from peer-reviewed literature or empirical reports … There is additionally a computer projection that we will see more hurricanes as the world warms,” he said. 

Fletcher says the report is a readable sets of bullets that explains changes to wind, ocean warming, sea level and ecosystems. He notes the main findings to consider global warming’s effects on Hawai‘i are: declining rainfall, sea level rise and heat stress.  


The state legislature ticked off a set of accomplishments year after year. Two bills passed this legislative session that sets Hawai‘i as carbon neutral by 2045. Fletcher says if the whole world were to become carbon neutral by 2050, we could stop warming at 2 degrees. 

Fletcher thinks Hawai‘i has been able to succeed in environmental initiatives as opposed to other cities and countries because of a strong environmental ethic from robust roots in Native Hawaiian culture, which taught the people to be sustainable.

“Hawai‘i has a wonderful story to tell of a significant size community that is setting up the legal framework and laying out what the whole world needs to do,” Fletcher said. “I think there is a strong environmental ethic in Hawai‘i: Avoid the tragedy of the commons: use a resource, but don’t use it up.”

The Paris Accord set out as a goal to stop global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Fletcher says in order to achieve that, we need to decrease our carbon emissions literally last year or maybe to 2021 or 2022. He says the sad reality is all projects predict the earth will see an increase in carbon emissions by 16 percent over the next 20 years. 

The reason is because India and China are becoming middle class cities and are in demand for new energy. Even though renewables are being deployed, it is not fast enough for the large demand. The bottom line: Fletcher says we are not going to stop at 2 or 3 degrees.  


Everybody who graduated from high school has heard of chemistry and biology; many people have never heard of the word geology. I remember when I was a freshman in college, I could not believe there was a guy up there talking about rocks. I was so awestruck that people pay attention to rocks. They had always been something you kicked out of the way… I believe earth science, or earth and environmental science, should be a requirement at the high school level. 

Currently, the UH Mānoa general education diversification requirement “DP”, calls for students to take at least three credits of a physical science. While this includes Geology 101 courses, students can also take chemistry, physics or other courses related to the physical sciences. 

“I think our education system needs to value Earth and environmental science as a core principle. We should gain a fundamental understanding of the planet Earth and human’s role in it. The DP isn’t that,” he said. 

Former UH Mānoa graduate student in philosophy, Matthew Williams, thinks a course on scientific methodology and evidence analysis should be required.

“The biggest issue with the layman’s understanding of any science is... an incomplete or misinformed understanding of science and evidential-based empirical research. Resolving that with a methods course that teaches the hows and whys as well as their limits should be a part of any well-rounded education,” he said. 

In reference to the prominent politician’s comment on tourist-induced sea level rise, Fletcher echoes the sentiment of Williams:

“[They] don’t have a basic understanding of scale … Education and critical thinking are so important because if you are taught to be skeptical … You would become skeptical of a lot of the things that are communicated.” 

But “they,” meaning those who fail to understand the science of global warming, can just as easily be us when we are presented with something we do not understand. Amongst the overload of today’s information, professors make the connections that matter, exposing the true reality of the world both in science and the humanities. Not everyone goes to college. 

Whatever we are discussing, there is a necessity for objectivity and fact. It is our shared effort to educate each other, including outside of universities and institutions, with the skills of critical thinking across disciplines. Hawai‘i’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions demonstrates the success of this cooperative problem solving.