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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: COVID-19: chance to adapt to climate change

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  • Anthony Aalto

    Anthony Aalto

It sounds crass, in the midst of global tragedy, to say we should turn lemons into lemonade.

But the visitor industry will be the last to recover from the pandemic recession. Through no fault of their own, thousands of Hawaii residents face extended unemployment. They will require public assistance.

At the same time, COVID-19 (just the latest of hundreds of infectious diseases to emerge in recent decades) has shown how vulnerable we are to the kinds of disasters that climate change is inexorably going to unleash on us. Unless we radically re-engineer the economy over the next 20 years, the risk to our community will quickly grow unmanageable. Part of that re-engineering means reducing our dependence on tourism.

As with most challenges, this presents an opportunity. By doing the right thing for our most vulnerable workers, we can do the right thing for the planet and for the future of our kids.

Through the Sustainable Hawai‘i Initiative, the state is already committed to goals that will be a model to the world. We’re already committed to going carbon neutral by 2045, already committed to doubling local food production by 2030.

So why not offer the unemployed an opportunity to help accelerate those goals? In exchange for a legitimate living stipend, let them join one of the many activities that will make Hawaii more resilient and more livable.

What could they do?

They could help plant more trees. We have enough land in Hawaii to plant 1 million trees a year for 40 years, which could mitigate our entire carbon footprint. Honolulu has a goal of 35% tree canopy to counteract the urban heat island effect that is making our streets increasingly unpleasant to walk in the height of the summer. Why not recruit some of the unemployed to join our urban and rural reforestry efforts?

They could help accelerate our switch to local food production. The local food community has responded extremely well to this crisis; let’s build on that. Let’s recruit the unemployed to expand our food-farming base.

They could insulate people’s homes to reduce demand for air conditioning, or install rooftop solar panels. Hawaii’s energy independence plan already assumes we’ll put PV on every single rooftop on Oahu; let’s get on with it. Let’s offer the unemployed an opportunity to learn new skills that will boost their employability once the recession is over.

All these activities should be focused on the least-affluent communities, where the need is greatest. Insulation and rooftop PV programs will help lower utility bills for those most financially stretched. Poorer communities tend to be the ones with the fewest trees and the highest rates of food insecurity.

And there’s so much more that can be done. For inspiration, check-out the “Solutions” page of Project Drawdown:

All this will cost money — though, amortized over 20 years, these programs will likely pay for themselves. But in any case, we have the money.

The state is about to receive $850 million through the CARES Act. How about we set aside 20% to support the unemployed while, in return, they help us grow more food, more trees, more PV and more resilience to climate change? At, say, $20 an hour, such a program could probably employ close to 3,000 people for a year.

COVID-19 has shown just how costly a global disaster can be. The sort of investment we’re discussing would leverage huge returns for the unemployed and their families; huge returns for the environment and the economy. Above all, by building an early model of a sustainable, resilient, carbon-neutral economy, we could become a powerful example to humanity.

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