Hawaii is one of the smallest states in the US with a population of 1.4 million. With a total land area of almost 11,000 square miles, it is around the size of Massachusetts. Consistently warm with only minor changes in temperature throughout the year, the Hawaian Islands have only two seasons: summer (kau) from May to October and winter (hooilo) from November to April. Each island has its own unique environment, making Hawaii home to all kinds of biomes, including tropical rainforests, cool alpine regions, and arid deserts.
Climate change has strong adverse effects on Hawaii’s ecosystems and economy. Ocean warming and acidification are decimating the islands’ marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, which are hugely important because they provide a safe place for fish to spawn, protect Hawaii’s coasts from waves and storms, and support tourism and fishing industries worth billions of dollars. Coral reefs are also fundamental to the fabric of local communities in Hawaii, providing a source of food, materials, and traditional activities.
Related and useful non-climate change fact: research shows that common ingredients in sunscreen such as oxybenzone and octinoxate severely threaten ocean ecosystems. In Hawaii, due to its strong tourism industry, coral reefs are exposed to over 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion every year. For context, a 2015 study showed that oxybenzone starts causing serious damage to corals at concentrations as low as the equivalent of one drop of water in six-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools. In Hawaii, popular swimming spots see concentrations more than 10 times that amount. Find reef-safe sunscreens here.
Increasing heat levels also threaten Hawaii’s land flora and fauna, most of which are found nowhere else on earth. High temperatures are also a danger to Hawaii’s residents, as heat-related deaths rise in the wake of global warming.
Hawaii is also seeing increasingly intense rainfall events. On April 15th, 2018, 50 inches of rain fell on Hanalei in just 24 hours. That kind of rain is devastating to its ecosystems and population — and it’s a direct result of climate change.
Because Hawaii is an island chain in the middle of the ocean, sea level rise harms the state drastically, and has even eliminated entire islands. Whale Skate Island, a small island formerly located in Hawaii’s northwest region, disappeared due to sea level rise along with several other islands. In general, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are low-lying and therefore at great risk from increasing sea levels, also have a high concentration of endangered and threatened species. Sea levels are projected to continue to rise three feet along the coast of Oahu during the rest of this century due to global warming.
In 2014, Hawaii passed House Bill 1714 establishing the interagency Climate Adaptation Committee, later renamed the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, which was charged with developing vulnerability and adaptation reports on the effects of sea-level rise and leading the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. The Commission was also charged with identifying climate vulnerabilities across all sectors in Hawaii, assessing existing efforts and capacities of existing resources to address goals, setting goals and creating strategies for both mitigation and adaptation, and tracking and reporting on implementation progress.
As a result, in 2015, Hawaii set a goal for 100% of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2045, making it the first state to set a legally required deadline. It also created an Energy Office and new electric vehicle programs (it now ranks sixth in the nation—behind California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and the District of Columbia—in the percentage of total car and truck sales that were EVs. Hawaii adopted California’s appliance efficiency standards, plus climate taxes on fossil fuels, and programs to encourage green industry. Its Climate Commission created three working groups centering around equity, transportation, and legislation to properly serve Hawaii’s community. To help reduce its reliance on petroleum, they implemented the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative to displace 70% of petroleum-based ground transportation fuels with non-fossil fuels by 2030.
Hawaii has no natural gas, no coal, no hydropower potential, and no nuclear capacity. Its islands are further from a major land mass than any other island chain on earth forcing the state to rely on energy that’s easy to ship in — mainly petroleum (more than 69% of Hawaii’s energy comes from shipped-in petroleum, making it the most petroleum-dependent state in the US) but also coal which provides 13%. The only energy generated in Hawaii itself is renewable with solar making up more than half of its renewable energy resources, followed closely by wind, biomass, and geothermal. Nearly all of Hawaii’s utility-scale battery storage capacity is installed with onshore wind turbines or solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, allowing excess electricity from those generators to be stored and used later. As of January 2020, about 30% of Hawaii’s total generating capacity is solar or wind. Without storage, wind and solar generators can only provide energy when the sun is out or the wind is blowing. By storing excess output from wind and solar power plants, batteries can provide electricity during times of low wind and solar output and reduce the need for other forms of generation.
Hawaii is currently looking to the ocean for new sources of renewable energy, making the state hub for tidal and ocean thermal energy.
Hawaii is a special case when it comes to energy consumption. Because of its mild climate, Hawaii ranks among the 5 states with the lowest total energy use. The transportation sector accounts for more than half of all energy consumed in Hawaii.