When the traditional Hawaiian canoe Hokule’a set sail four years ago, the wayfinders on board — men and women navigating the open sea by a map of stars — vowed to seek a renewed sense of self and share with the world a treasured message: Malama Honua.
In Hawaiian, it means to care for Island Earth, a mission especially important to Pacific Islanders, whose home and economy is under constant threat from the rising seas and coral bleaching caused by a warming planet.
This week, the wayfinders will return to a Hawaii that on Tuesday took a defiant stand, becoming the first state to legally implement portions of the landmark Paris climate agreement that President Trump chose to abandon last week.
“Climate change is real, regardless of what others may say,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige said at a bill signing ceremony Tuesday in Honolulu. “Hawaii is seeing the impacts first hand. Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching, coastlines are eroding, weather is becoming more extreme. We must acknowledge these realities at home.”
Ige said the state had a “kuleana,” or responsibility, to the Earth.
“Like the voyaging canoe Hokule’a, we are one canoe, one island, one planet,” the governor said. “We cannot afford to mess this up. We are setting a course to change the trajectory of Hawaii and islanders for generations to come.”
With Ige’s signature, two bills became law.
The first, Senate bill 559, expanded strategies and mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide, a tenet of the Paris agreement. The second, House bill 1578, established the Carbon Farming Task Force within the state’s Office of Planning, to support the development of sustainable agriculture practices in Hawaii, a skill native islanders had once mastered before planes, freighters and Amazon linked them to the mainland.
Both bills were introduced in January, after President Trump moved into the White House and began what many climate scientists felt was a wholesale dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency and a reversal of the steps taken by the Obama administration to combat global warming.
They weren’t meant to be signed into law for several more weeks, Scott Glenn, an environmental adviser to the governor, told The Washington Post. But after Trump announced the United States would exit the Paris agreement, Glenn and his co-chair on the Sustainable Hawaii Initiative recommended the bill signing and ceremony be moved up because “this was of such national importance,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English (D) introduced SB 559 and said in a statement Tuesday that it gave Hawaii the “legal basis to continue adaptation and mitigation strategies … despite the Federal government’s withdrawal from the treaty.”
The governor also committed Hawaii to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a collection of 12 states and Puerto Rico that have vowed to uphold the Paris climate agreement on the state level.
It’s not the first time this year that Hawaii has inserted itself into the fray of national controversy. In March, Hawaii became the first state to file a lawsuit against Trump’s revised travel ban because, it claimed, the order would negatively impact its many international students, tourism and Muslim population.
The state has so far prevailed in the suit, prompting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s now-infamous remark that he was “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States.”
That Hawaii would take such a firm stance on environmental issues should not surprise anyone, Darren Lerner, director of the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Hawaii, told The Post.
“First and foremost, for Hawaii in particular, the science really speaks clearly,” Lerner said. “Due to its vulnerability and relative isolation, it needs to move forward on these issues.”
Lawmakers and environmental leaders in Hawaii are quick to say that there, the environment and the economy are inextricably linked. Tourists flock to the collection of islands to experience its beaches and explore its coral reefs, both of which are threatened by warming and rising waters.
In late May, the islands suffered the highest tides the state has seen in its 120 years of recording them. Called “king tides,” the water creeps up onto shore, swallowing beaches and flooding streets. King tides occur during the summer solstice and stretch the island’s high tides even higher, Lerner said.
Rainfall patterns are shifting and the islands are experiencing more extreme weather, Lerner said, which was most evident during hurricane season in recent years. The 2015 season set five records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The mounting evidence and creeping threat has thrust Hawaii into what Lerner called “a very significant rebirth” and commitment to understanding and addressing climate change.
And the voyage of Hokule’a, with its wayfinders and message of Malama Honua, has offered the state a symbol for that renewed spirit of sustainability.
Building Hokule’a and training the wayfinders has been the life work of Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, whose best friend was Charles Lacy Veach, one of the first astronauts in space.
At the bill signing ceremony Tuesday, Thompson spoke of Veach and how he compared the Hawaiian islands to Earth, “the blue island in space.” Veach, who died of cancer in 1995, inspired Thompson to send wayfinders on Hokule’a to learn from people around the globe fighting for the environment.
Thompson recalled Veach encouraging the wayfinders to bring their knowledge from the voyage “home to Hawaii.”
On Tuesday, Thompson said there were six navigators out on the water, just hours away from finding their way back home.
“When they find Hawaii, I will call them and tell them the Hawaii they are coming home to is powerful, strong, united and willing to do the right thing,” Thompson said.
Veach, who was on board the space shuttle Columbia in 1992 as it flew over Hawaii, would be proud of the islands and his people, Thompson said.
“We need places to shine the light strongly. We need places of hope, we need places that the rest of the world can turn to and understand real success,” he said. “That’s what happened today.”
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