In the run-up to November’s general election, the city’s Charter Commission told voters that passage of a proposed amendment to Honolulu’s “Constitution” would establish a central point for contending with sustainability-related stewardship of our natural resources for present and future generations.
With nearly 60 percent of voters backing the ballot item, the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency was added to the Honolulu Hale lineup. Its executive director and chief resilience officer, Josh Stanbro, is now serving in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Cabinet.
Stanbro’s regard of environmental issues is likely rooted in his upbringing on an apple farm in Northern California’s rural Shasta County. His tie to Hawaii dates back to childhood visits on the Big Isle, where his grandmother lived.
After studying literature and history in college, Stanbro was working in construction in Kona when he decided to go to law school. That turning point occurred after spending an afternoon at Kohanaiki, “hearing about how ocean fishing cultural practices were actually dependent on ancient cultural sites on the land, and realizing how our shared ability to live off the land really had as much to do with culture as it did with natural resources.”
Barely one month into his new post, Stanbro maintains that the stakes tied to the job are now higher due to President Donald Trump’s decision to step away from the Paris climate change accord. He described that move as “truly devastating to an island community like ours.”
Further, “It makes it clear that local governments and cities will need to lead on climate in partnership with the rest of the world, even while leaving Washington, D.C., behind — and that’s already happening. You saw earlier this week that Gov. (David) Ige and all four mayors pledged to abide by the commitments made by the U.S. in Paris regardless of President Trump’s irresponsibility. I’m proud to be part of that effort.”
Question: Why is an Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency needed rather than, say, a citywide policy?
Answer: Voters really weighed in on loud and clear … when they voted by a more than 16-point margin to make sure an office was dedicated to the enormous challenges we face. What they viscerally understood is that Hawaii is more vulnerable than anywhere else on the planet due to our isolation, our reliance on imported fuel and food and our exposure to climate risks like sea level rise and superstorms.
Our message is that a dedicated office will save taxpayer funds over the long-term by designing infrastructure that will endure in the face of climate impacts and avoid spending millions more down the road to redo it. A policy to protect our natural resources is important, but to put actual projects and coordinated efforts into practice takes a team of dedicated staff pursuing opportunities and pushing action day in and day out. We don’t have the luxury of time on this issue.
Q: The office is tasked with overseeing the development of a resiliency plan focusing on coastal and economic challenges related to climate change as well as potential “shocks” or natural disasters?
A: We are lucky to have a strong partner in 100 Resilient Cities, kick-started by the Rockefeller Foundation. A total of 1,100 cities applied to be part of this program, but only 100 were ultimately selected from around the globe — including Honolulu. So we are learning from those sister cities what works and what doesn’t in putting together a successful resilience strategy.
First, we bring together a diverse blend of about 150 city leaders and community stakeholders to identify where Oahu is most vulnerable and where we have potential. Then, we spend about six months working with clusters of local experts and national thought leaders to “hone it” so that we get the most benefit for local conditions. We will identify three to four key areas to focus on as we build resilience on our island and then coordinate with other city departments in terms of execution.
Q: What do you see as our most daunting economic challenges linked to climate change?
A: Well, there are challenges but there are tremendous opportunities as well. We export about $5 billion a year straight out of our local economy to pay for fossil fuel, which we burn and then ultimately pay more to defend against storms and sea level rise as a result of carbon emissions. Our state is committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, and we’ve already created more local jobs and saved one-third of a billion dollars as a result.
The reality is that an economy based on sustainable principles is cleaner and more beneficial for our island than the current model. That said, the impacts of climate change that are already in the system are going to have very real economic costs — and those challenges will be felt in three primary areas: storm damage, relocating critical infrastructure away from coastlines and adverse impacts to the tourism economy. That’s why we need to invest now to minimize those impacts as they inevitably occur in the coming years.
Q: The office will work in tandem with scientists, established research teams and agencies?
A: We’re definitely an outward-facing office and will partner closely with the University of Hawaii and other agencies — in fact, we already are. We represent the city on the Interagency Climate Adaptation Committee that has done great work and will release adaptation recommendations at the end of 2017.
But I think it’s important to make a distinction between “studying” climate change and actually changing practices and policies to be more resilient in the face of it. I’m an attorney by training, not a scientist. The guys with Ph.D.s know exactly what’s happening, and it’s not good.
Our office’s mission is to take that knowledge and work side-by-side with city planners, road designers and building code reviewers to make sure that knowledge of our future is designed into our city to make us safer and more secure.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Trump administration’s plans to cut about 30 percent of funding for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
A: The proposed EPA cuts … would really impact the state Department of Health, where dozens of positions are funded with federal EPA dollars. President Trump is also planning to zero out the entire Sea Grant program budget for the entire nation; this is a 50-year-old institution based at UH that is one of our primary partners to build coastal resilience, replenish Waikiki beaches — you name it.
Q: Honolulu’s profile on the “100 Resilient Cities” website mentions that the city is “looking to address increased homelessness that is worsened by an influx of climate refuges.” What does that mean?
A: Climate change is already forcing people from their homes on smaller, sister Pacific islands. Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia are suddenly the primary places where climate refugees are likely to have family and friends, and turn to in their hour of need. The smaller islands don’t have to be submerged — it’s enough for the sea level rise to turn the water table slightly salty and crops can’t grow in the soil.
The first way that people adapt to climate change is to move, especially from areas that don’t have the funds and resources to build infrastructure. We need to keep in mind that it is much harder for others in the world to adapt when they don’t have the financial means that we do in Hawaii and (elsewhere in) the U.S.
Q: Previously, you served as the program director for the Hawaii Community Foundation. Before that, project manager for The Trust for Public Land-Hawaii. How do those posts inform your new job?
A: It’s interesting — I went from specific to general. At TPL, I was focused on land issues and working directly with communities. At HCF my portfolio expanded to include water security, renewable energy and local agriculture — a variety of sustainability issues. Now, as chief resilience officer for Oahu, it encompasses all of those topic areas, but also adds really interesting new elements such as natural hazard vulnerability, infrastructure financing and urban design.
I think the thread running through all of it is this growing awareness of how everything — everything — depends on our stable climate. If we aren’t investing every dollar with an eye to climate, we’re really playing roulette about whether the investments we make will last.