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Coral Loss, Water Supplies, Increased Temperatures Top Hawai'i and Pacific Region Concerns in 3rd U.S. National Climate Assessment

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HONOLULU (May 6th, 2014) - Among major climate change concerns and challenges already being felt in Hawai'i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands are damage to coral reefs, decreasing freshwater supplies, increasing temperatures and greater stresses on native marine and terrestrial ecosystems, according to the 3rd U.S. National Climate Assessment released by the White House today.

Several authors of the Hawai'i and Pacific Islands section of the national report discussed the regional concerns in a special briefing this morning at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

"Climate change is here, climate change is happening, and we have to do something about it," William Aila Jr., Chair of the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources, repeatedly emphasized during his opening remarks at the briefing.

"Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands have much to contribute to the national discussion on climate change, both from a scientific research perspective and from a proactive adaptive stance, and it is our hope today to add substance to the discussion of practical adaptations and solutions for the problems we will face," said Dr. Victoria Keener of the East-West Center's Pacific RISA program, which organized today's briefing and helped lead an earlier regional assessment that was incorporated into the national report.

A panel of assessment authors told the briefing audience that the primary concerns for the region include:

  • Already constrained freshwater supplies becoming more limited on many islands, coupled with saltwater intrusion and sea level rise to impact coastal aquifers even further.
  • Mounting threats to lives, livelihoods and cultures via stresses on food and water security, infrastructure, health, and safety, which are expected to lead to increasing human migration, making it increasingly difficult for Pacific Islanders to sustain the region's many unique customs, beliefs and languages.
  • The impact of warmer oceans, leading to increased coral bleaching events and reef disease outbreaks, as well as changed distribution patterns of tuna fisheries.
  • Increasing temperatures, and in some areas reduced rainfall, which among other impacts will increase the risk of extinctions among native Pacific Island plants and animals, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species.

However, Deanna Spooner, coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative, emphasized that, while climate change has "existential" implications for many Pacific Island communities, "there are things that we can to do together ... as a scientific community, as a management community and as a series of islands that are connected by the Pacific Ocean, in order to create more climate-resilient communities."

As examples, Spooner cited work on forest, stream and wetland restoration; community-based marine resource management; and people's individual efforts to conserve energy and reduce waste.

"Hawai'i has a lot of these programs already in place, and we're in the process as a large community of stitching them together," she said. "In American Samoa they have a territorial adaptation strategy in place that is beginning to be implemented village-by-village. There are federal emergency plans in various parts of the Pacific that look at climate and disaster preparedness. So there are a lot of activities we can do to help create more resilient communities and ecosystems."

About the National Climate Assessment
The National Climate Assessment is the most comprehensive peer-reviewed analysis of climate change's impacts in the United States, informing Americans about the effects of climate change in their backyards. As mandated by the U.S. Global Change Research Act passed by Congress in 1990, the National Climate Assessment synthesizes the state of climate knowledge and impacts in the different regions and sectors of resources in the United States every four years. Previous assessments were released in 2001 and 2009; however, the emphasis on regional and sectorial impacts, decision support and management, mitigation, and adaptation activities are new additions to the process.

The NCA process relies on consensus, and as a result, the assessment's findings reflect conservative estimates of climate change impacts. Overall key messages at the national level include increasingly severe climate-based disruptions to agriculture, and more severe threats to human health and well-being from extreme weather events, wildfire and diseases.

The full assessment report features over 300 authors from academia, non-profits, the private sector and federal, state, and local government agencies. The Hawai'i and Pacific Islands chapter itself features 15 authors with over 80 peer-reviewed citations, and over 100 regional collaborators who contributed to the process.

About the Pacific RISA Program
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program was created in 1995 to pioneer innovative mechanisms for enhancing the value of climate information and products for understanding and responding to a variety of challenges associated with climate variability and change at the regional scale. Currently, there are eight region-specific RISA teams working in sustained partnerships with local decision-makers; Pacific RISA covers Hawai'i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands.

Special thanks to the Pacific Climate Information System (PaCIS), the Pacific Climate Change Cooperative (PICCC), and the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) Program for their support and co-sponsorship of the climate assessment briefing.