Hawaii Gets Explicit about Sea-Level Rise

New law requires developers to take sea-level rise projections into account.

Condominiums under construction in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)

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As chapter director of the Sierra Club of Hawai’i, Marti Townsend sees a need to create a shift that seeks to address climate change as the threat that it is. That shift needs to include everything from the legislative realm to banks that fund development projects and groups that set the value of coastal properties, she says.

“As it is right now, markets acting as they do, it’s seen as really valuable and good to build right on the shoreline,” says Townsend. “And that is wrong. And it’s going to take public policy to counteract the motivations that the market makes, because otherwise people are going to be building themselves into harm’s way.”

On the legislative front, at least, things are moving in that direction, Townsend says. Last week, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a package of bills including a new requirement that an analysis of sea-level rise be included in all future environmental impact statements for development projects around the state. (The other bills included a pledge to make the state carbon neutral by 2045 and a framework for a new carbon offsets program.)

The new requirement, Ige said in a press release, is “just plain common sense.” But it puts Hawaii near the forefront in terms of incorporating the science around sea-level rise projections into land-use planning practices. In even the most widely accepted worst-case scenario, the state of Hawaii is looking at large-scale inundation from sea-level rise by the end of the century.

More than 25,000 acres of land rendered unusable, a third of it in urban areas. Economic losses from flooded properties adding up to $19 billion — even without accounting for the damage to public infrastructure. Whole public beaches eroded away, 38 miles of chronically flooded roads, 20,000 residents displaced.

And of course, there are worse-case scenarios than that. Those estimates come from the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation report, released last December. The report is based on a projection that seas will rise 3.2 feet by the year 2100, which itself is based on a “business as usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That projection is considered to be the upper end of the “likely” range. But more recent projections suggest that sea levels could rise that much by 2060, the report notes.

“For this reason,” the report says, “it is vital that the magnitude and rate of sea level rise is tracked as new projections emerge, plan for 3.2 feet of sea level rise now, and be ready to adjust that projection upward. It is also important to recognize that global sea level rise will not stop at the year 2100, but will likely continue on for centuries.”

The new bill directs the state environmental council to create rules requiring the best available sea-level rise science to be included in environmental impact statements, which are required before gaining approval for new development. Those rules are currently being written, and could be finished within the next few months, says Scott Glenn, director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

“I think there’s a lot of consensus that it makes sense that we look at sea-level rise,” Glenn says. “How to do it, when to do it, where to do it is still up for discussion, and people are still building consensus around that.”

Glenn says his office was initially wary of the legislation, thinking that it would require them to start over in their rulemaking process for environmental impact statements, which was already underway. And some felt that the bill would be redundant, since theoretically developers preparing environmental impact statements in Hawaii should have been considering sea-level rise all along.

“It makes explicit something that’s implicit,” Glenn says. “What this bill does is, it says sea-level rise is important, and you’ve got to look at it, and it just kind of puts to bed any kind of discussion with anybody about, ‘Well, maybe we don’t have to think about it.’”

If anything, the change will probably reinforce current development trends, which are heading landward anyway, Glenn says. Hawaiians as a whole, including developers, are more attuned to the realities of climate change than the U.S. as a whole, says Charles Fletcher, associate dean for the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaiʻi and Vice Chair of the City and County of Honolulu Climate Change Commission.

“I don’t think people are going to be against the concept [of the sea-level rise requirement]. I don’t expect in Hawaii to hear, ‘Climate change is a farce.’” says Fletcher, who led the modeling for flooding and erosion in the Vulnerability and Adaptation Report. “I think the pushback will be in, ‘I don’t know what to do’ … When confronted with something that severely disrupts their standard practice, that’s the first reaction of many people: ‘How are we supposed to do this? Is this going to be expensive? I don’t know what to do. So what if there’s going to be high-tide flooding in the urban core of Honolulu? I don’t know how to adapt to that.’”

But Fletcher notes that the state, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have made an abundance of tools and data available to predict which areas are most vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise in the future. He hopes developers will voluntarily adopt strong adaptation measures on their own. But if requiring them to consider sea-level rise in environmental impact statements doesn’t result in less hazardous development, the state should take further action, he says. Fletcher, for example, would like the state to create a special planning district out of the Sea-Level Rise Exposure Area identified in the report, an area “where there are specific rules and policies that must be met, and if they’re not met, you’re breaking the law.”

“Absolutely [the bill] is significant and very positive,” says Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Florida Sea Grant and a lawyer who specializes in property rights and the environment. “Clearly we need to be doing that, because there’s still far too much building going on, both public and private, in what are hazardous areas and what are going to be hazardous areas.”

There’s a growing understanding, Ruppert says, that the public bears the costs for risky private development. And while the impacts of sea-level rise are always local, more states need to be providing leadership to local governments about how they can address the threats, so that small municipalities aren’t left fighting with property owners all on their own.

“You sometimes see developers that are willing to go in, and they know that if they can do their entire project and turn around and get their profit out in three to five years, they leave the owners and the public holding the bill,” Ruppert says. “You get privatization of the benefits and the public pays the bill — socialization of the costs. And until we change that dynamic, we’re in trouble.”

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: resilient citiessustainable citiessea levelshonolulu

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