Hawai’i, Clean Energy, and Climate Action

Matthew Rimmer
Aug 29, 2014 · 11 min read

Matthew Rimmer

Hawai’i is a leader in clean energy and climate action in the Pacific and the United States. With the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawai’i has been at the forefront of climate research. The state has a special vulnerability to the impacts of climate change — particularly in respect of the marine environment, water resources, biodiversity, and human costs. Hawaii has promoted a Clean Energy initiative and passed legislation on climate adaptation. State and national leaders — most notably, United States Senator Brian Schatz — have shown great initiative in respect of clean energy and climate action. As such, it is worthwhile considering Hawaii as a case study of climate leadership in the Pacific and the United States.

The Mauna Loa Observatory

The Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawai’i has been monitoring and collecting data on atmospheric changes since the 1950s. It is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In May 2013, the Mauna Loa Observatory reported: ‘On May 9, the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in 1958.’ The Observatory noted: ‘It marks an important milestone because Mauna Loa, as the oldest continuous carbon dioxide (CO2.) measurement station in the world, is the primary global benchmark site for monitoring the increase of this potent heat-trapping gas’.

Scientists have been alarmed by the findings. NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans commented: ‘The evidence is conclusive that the strong growth of global CO2 emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving the acceleration.’ Ralph Keeling reflected:

That’s now a done deal. But what happens from here on still matters to climate, and it’s still under our control. It mainly comes down to how much we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy.

Dr James Hansen observed: ‘If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.’

Bill McKibben was critical of the failure of the United States Government to take greater action to curb carbon emissions in light of such scientific warnings. Indeed, his organisation 350.org is committed to keeping the level of carbon emissions to 350 ppm.

The United States National Climate Assessment

In 2014, the United States National Climate Assessment was published, summarizing the impacts of climate change upon a wide range of regions in the United States, and key sectors (such as water, food, health, biodiversity, energy, infrastructure, and transportation). In its 2014 study, the United States National Climate Assessment devoted a chapter to impact of climate change upon Hawai’i and Pacific islands associated with the United States.


The Assessment provided this overview of the challenges faced by Hawai’i in respect of climate change:

Warmer oceans are leading to increased coral bleaching and disease outbreaks and changing distribution of tuna fisheries. Freshwater supplies will become more limited on many islands. Coastal flooding and erosion will increase. Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, health, and safety are expected to lead to increasing human migration.

The authors and contributors to the chapter on Hawai’i and Pacific Island States discussed their findings at an event at the East-West Centre at the University of Hawai’i.

Hawaii-Pacific Highlights of the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment http://vimeo.com/94289546

First, the report emphasized that climate change would have a significant impact upon marine ecosystems: ‘Warmer oceans are leading to increased coral bleaching events and disease outbreaks in coral reefs, as well as changed distribution patterns of tuna fisheries’. The report feared: ‘Ocean acidification will reduce coral growth and health.’ The report observed that there would be on flow-on impacts: ‘These changes to both corals and fish pose threats to communities, cultures, and ecosystems of the Pacific Islands both directly through their impact on food security and indirectly through their impact on economic sectors including fisheries and tourism.’

Second, the assessment highlights the impact of climate change upon water security in Hawai’i. The study noted: ‘In Hawai‘i, average precipitation, average stream discharge, and stream baseflow have been trending downward for nearly a century, especially in recent decades, but with high variability due to cyclical climate patterns such as ENSO and the PDO (see “El Niño and other Patterns of Climate Variability”).’ This will raise significant issues in terms of water resources. Heather Frey from the University of Hawaii has highlighted that there will be significant issues associated with water rights.

Third, the assessment warned of the impact of climate change upon biodiversity: ‘Increasing temperatures, and in some areas reduced rainfall, will stress native Pacific Island plants and animals, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species, increasing the risk of extinctions.’

Fourth, the report predicted: ‘Rising sea levels, coupled with high water levels caused by storms, will incrementally increase coastal flooding and erosion, damaging coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and agriculture, and
negatively affecting tourism.’

Fifth, the report predicted that there would be a wide range of human costs associated with climate change: ‘Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, health, and safety 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.’

Professor Maxine Burkett’s work at the University of Hawaii has highlighted that climate change will raise significant questions of justice, ethics, development, and human rights for Hawaii and states in the Pacific.

The report has been seen as a call for the climate action. There have been wider concerns about the impact of climate change upon Hawaii.

The Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative

MicroCSP collectors on the Big Island of Hawaii Xklaim CC BY-SA 3.0

In her book Madlands, Anna Rose praises Hawai’i for being ‘one of the few US states on track to meet its goal of powering itself through forty per cent renewable energy and reducing energy demand by thirty per cent by 2030.’ She cites the verdict of Forbes Magazine that Hawai’i is a ‘test bed for renewable energy technologies’ — including geothermal energy, biofuels, and smart-grid experiments. Hawai’i is also a centre for climate change research — with Mauna Loa monitoring greenhouse gas concentrations.

The Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative is designed to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Initiative is particularly concerned about addressing Hawai’i’s over-depedence upon fossil fuels:

The Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative is charting a new path toward an energy-independent future for Hawai‘i. Today, imported oil supplies 90% of Hawai‘i’s energy. Our dependence on oil threatens our most precious resources — the land, air, and water that sustain us. And it places our economic security at risk. Simply stated, our current way of meeting our energy needs is not sustainable. We must alter our course.

The Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative is focused upon improving energy efficiency — looking at residences, business, and transportation. In particular, there has been a push for the adoption of LEED building standards and Energy Star standards. The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative is also a strong supporter of renewable energy: ‘To achieve the goal of 70% clean energy by 2030, the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative is working to develop Hawai‘i’s indigenous, sustainable sources of energy.’ The Initiative emphasized that Hawai’i had natural advantages: ‘Our plentiful sunshine, strong trade winds, surrounding ocean,geothermal activity, temperate climate, and year-round growing season can all be tapped to provide sustainable sources of energy that are essential to a clean energy future for Hawai‘i.’

Hawaii’s energy regulator has ordered the Hawaiian Electric Company to reduce energy costs and increase rooftop solar. In August 2014, the Hawaiian Electric Company promised increase access to rooftop by solar threefold by 2030. ‘Our energy environment is changing rapidly and we must change with it to meet our customers’ evolving needs,”’Shelee Kimura, HECO’s vice president of corporate planning and business development said in a statement. “These plans are about delivering services that our customers value. That means lower costs, better protection of our environment, and more options to lower their energy costs, including rooftop solar.’ The utility made promises to increase energy storage, develop smart grids, and support community solar projects.

In addition, the Legislature of Hawaii has passed a bill to support action on climate adaptation in 2014. The Governor Neil Abercrombie commented upon the initiative:

This measure builds on Hawaii’s leadership in addressing climate change. Being the only island state in the country, we are especially vulnerable to climate change and are on the frontlines of impacts like sea level rise. I applaud the Legislature for passing this bill and recognizing that Hawaii is ideal as a learning laboratory to continue to contribute and shape our nation’s response to climate change adaptation.

The bill — HB 1714 — is intended ‘to address the effects of climate change through 2050 to protect the State’s economy, health, environment, and way of life by establishing a statewide climate adaptation plan.’ It will establish a Climate Council in 2015.

Bill signing

Climate Policy

In her Declaration on Climate Justice, Mary Robinson emphasizes the need for transformative leadership in respect of climate change. In this context, it is worthwhile considering notable climate leadership in Hawai’i.

At a National level, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii has been a dynamic and energetic policy-maker in respect of policy debates on climate change, renewable energy, and clean technologies. He was one of the organisers of the Up 4 Climate event at the United States Senate in March 2014. Senator Brian Schatz has collaborated with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Henry Waxman on draft legislation on carbon pollution. He is serving as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Water and Power on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In this role, he aims to protect the sustainability and water resources of Hawai‘i. For his efforts, Brian Schatz has been praised by Al Gore and Ron Wyden, and received the endorsements of the Sierra Club, Ocean Champions, and League of Conservation Voters

In his speech at the Up 4 Climate event, Senator Brian Schatz stressed: ‘Climate change is real; climate change is caused by humans; and climate change is solvable.’ He vowed: ‘We will not rest until Congress wakes up and acts on the most pressing issue of our time.’

In his speech, Senator Schatz was concerned about the efforts of Republican politicians to strip the government of its ability to reduce carbon pollution. He provided a critique of variety of forms of climate denial and scepticism at work in political discourse in the United States:


Brian Schatz called for a pragmatic approach to addressing climate change. He commented: ‘Part of this country’s greatness is our pragmatism -We see the world as it is and fix the things we can.’ Brian Schatz stressed: ‘When it comes to climate change, we have reliable information.’ He warned: ‘We ignore it at our peril.’

In his speech, Brian Schatz emphasized that the United States could learn from the example of Hawaii: ‘We have to believe in our ideas, in the power of our ability to innovate, and the strength of our economy, and the American idea that whatever problem our generation is faced with, we will address it.’ He explained:

I have seen firsthand from our experience in Hawaii that with commitment and specific goals, real progress can be made. We have led the way to building clean energy infrastructure, producing renewable energy, and reducing our petroleum dependency. I know we can achieve this kind of change across the Nation. As Lieutenant Governor, I led our efforts toward Hawaii’s 70-percent clean energy goal by the year 2030, and we have made encouraging progress. The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative Partnership has the enthusiastic support of our business community, the U.S. DOE and DOD, the State government and even our monopoly electric utility company. By 2013 it would surpass our 2015 goal of 15-percent clean energy while having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Nation. Hawaii’s progress has taken creativity, collaboration, and innovation, the same qualities that have helped America overcome other seemingly unsolvable problems.

Schatz noted: ‘Transformation did not come easily and would not have occurred without collaboration between Federal, State, county, and private sector partners.’ He commented: ‘Because of their hard work, we are now on track to achieve the highest renewable energy portfolio in the Nation, with 40 percent by the year 2030.’ Other states should pay heed to the policies of Hawaii: ‘We know that climate change is a real problem, and that it is caused by humans, but we also know that it is a problem that we can fix, and we know what to do.’

Divisions within the United State Congress have frustrated both domestic climate action in the United States, and international efforts at achieving a fair, ambitious, and sound international climate framework. Accordingly, Senator Brian Schatz has called for a bipartisan approach to climate change in the United States Congress:


It remains to be seen whether Senator Brian Schatz’s advocacy will help overcome the deadlocks in the United States Congress on climate action.

Considering the National Climate Assessment, Senator Brian Schatz commented:

Climate change is happening. The new National Climate Assessment report is a harsh reality check for anyone who thinks we don’t need to act on climate change. Rising ocean temperatures and sea levels have and will continue to threaten Hawai‘i’s food and water security, unless we act now. We can’t afford to wait.

Schatz stressed: ‘We should be moving forward with comprehensive climate legislation, not having to defend reality against those who refuse to believe in science or are in the pocket of big oil or big coal interests.’

Dr Matthew Rimmer is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on Intellectual Property and Climate Change. He is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, and an associate director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture (ACIPA). He holds a BA (Hons) and a University Medal in literature, and a LLB (Hons) from the Australian National University, and a PhD (Law) from the University of New South Wales. He is a member of the ANU Climate Change Institute. Dr Rimmer is the author of Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands off my iPod, Intellectual Property and Biotechnology: Biological Inventions, and Intellectual Property and Climate Change: Inventing Clean Technologies. He is an editor of Patent Law and Biological Inventions, Incentives for Global Public Health: Patent Law and Access to Essential Medicines, and Intellectual Property and Emerging Technologies: The New Biology. Rimmer has published widely on copyright law and information technology, patent law and biotechnology, access to medicines, clean technologies, and traditional knowledge. His work is archived at SSRN Abstracts and Bepress Selected Works.

Matthew Rimmer, ‘Hawai’i, Clean Energy, and Climate Action’, Medium, 29 August 2014, https://medium.com/@DrRimmer/a7f3f8d7962c

Matthew Rimmer

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Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law, QUT. #Copyright #Patent #TradeMark #3DPrinting #Biotech #Plainpacks #Climate #IndigenousIP #TPP

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