“Climate Change Island Guide” read the teaser at the top of the front page of the Oct. 29- 30 Wall Street Journal weekend edition. Though not a regular WSJ reader, the words drew me in, since I live on the island of Hawai’i during most of the year.
I wanted to know how well, or badly, our island would rank among the 40 “destinations” for “weather and geological disasters” that “add new risks.” It didn”t sound too good for island-dwellers.
I opened to WSJ”s travel section, which they call “Pursuits.” I tend to go on vacations that are relaxing retreats, but some people apparently vacation with a more specific agenda. They pursue various pleasures that global warming might foil.
The virtually full-page (that’s worth tens maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars) cover of the Pursuits section notes, “Some popular spots are being hit harder than others by rising temperatures, eroding beaches, and washed-out coral.”
Two weeks earlier I had been at a conference with over 3000 environmentalists. They also contended that global warming threatens beaches and coral reefs. But to see such facts in large print on a colorful cover of a WSJ section makes them seem more real.
The Bush administration may still try to deny that global warming is human-caused. But the WSJ accepts that climate change is happening. Jacob Hale Russell and Jess McCuan write, “Warmer temperatures melt glaciers and cause water to expand, making sea levels rise. Those rising waters can flood low areas and erode sandy beaches and fragile coasts.” Scientists, in fact, have documented that the melting of the polar caps and glaciers may eventually threaten the Earth’s capacity to support human habitation.
The WSJ advises the investors and travelers who look to them for daily guidance with respect to risks and benefits, including which islands to visit and which to avoid. But whereas even Bush has recently advocated energy conservation, the WSJ’s concern seems to be to lead its readers to the best destinations, before global warming further ruins them.
Since living in the Pacific islands I have learned that pursuit (even of a good time)– especially when it involves burning fossil fuels–can speed-up global warming. Relaxing retreats can slow down our climate-changing behavior. Rather than just look at what we can get from the Earth, we need to consider what we can do to preserve its bountiful gifts.
On the left of the Pursuits’ cover is an attractive couple sunning itself in relaxed poses on warm sand beneath evocative palm trees. On the other half is a dark picture of an upset, nervous couple trying fruitlessly to ward off a storm threatening their personal pursuits of pleasure. A coastal Puna resident in Hawai’i, Yen Chin, notes, “The message is clear: beware of loser islands.”
“Risk Rating for 40 Islands” was promised inside. I didn’t start at the top of the list, but looked for Hawai’i. Unfortunately, we are ranked as the 10th worst of the 40. “The Dow Jones Island Index includes 12 factors that reflect a range of environmental risks,” the WSJ notes.
The paragraph on Oahu notes: “The state”s 24 miles of swimmable beach are eroding fast, according to some scientists.” Fortunately, the WSJ adds, “Oahu has some of the best- preserved beaches on the state.” Beaches, after all, are what matter most to tourists paying good money to see tropical islands before they vanish underwater.
Hawai’i is even worse off, according to the list, than Tuvalu, also in the Pacific, where “scientists say these low-lying atolls could be the first inhabited islands to be abandoned if seas continue to rise.” But you can still visit Tuvalu, at least for a while. Continue to rise is apparently what seas will do, as the polar caps and glaciers melt as we burn more coal and oil that release carbon dioxide that warms up the Earth.
In fact, the people of Tuvalu are already negotiating with New Zealand and other neighbors to accept them as environmental refugees when the water drowns their historic home. Can you imagine having to permanently leave your home, where you and your ancestors were raised? Any bones that were once in the ground would then be at the bottom of the sea, harder to honor and pay homage to.
In case you are planning a vacation-retreat or pursuit-the worst three islands are Sri Lanka, Sulawesi in Indonesia in the Pacific, and the Dominican Republic. Your best options would be Prince Edward Island in Canada, Martha”s Vineyard off Massachusetts and Easter Island in the Pacific.
Island-living and visiting islands have many benefits to offer, especially at this time of year when things get colder up north. The WSJ writers note, “Surrounded by water and composed mainly of low-lying areas, islands are particularly subject to nature’s vicissitudes, including global climate change.” That indeed has been my experience in Hawai’i. Things flow, not just the water, and change often and a lot. One day, for example, we had over 15 inches of rain at my Auntie Jeanne’s home in Orchidland in Puna. The next day was bright, sunny, and dry.
It might be tough to conveniently package and sell at a discount price, but personally, I think we should stop heating up ocean water, thus firing hurricanes to be more potent and destructive. The intensity of this hurricane season has been a further wake-up call that we need to do more about global warming. The Earth’s islands and those of us living on them are going to be among the first to feel the catastrophic impacts of global warming.
The US federal government has become a major obstacle to efforts to combat global warming, not even being willing to sign the timid Kyoto Treaty. Fortunately, many municipal governments have become involved in climate protection campaigns. Though the threat is planetary, when large governing bodies refuse to act, it is up to grassroots citizen activity to mobilize local governments.
Instead of trying to help its readers understand the causes of the global warming that may devastate the islands and even continents, the WSJ seeks merely to guide its readers to the best of the worsening islands. Such a short-sighted attitude of merely using, rather than preserving, the Earth’s bountiful gifts advances global warming.
For those of us living here, Hawai’i is much more than a “pursuit” or “destination.” When you come to love a place, even with its shortcomings, it is painful to see it as the tenth worst island on a list of risky places.
Perhaps it’s time to live locally and think globally. We may feel distant and even isolated here on the islands. But people”s consumption patterns on the Mainland and in rapidly industrializing China and India impact the entire planet, including the globe’s vulnerable islands.
The best place to start to protect the future of the islands and continents would be with our own climate-changing behavior. We can learn to conserve energy, use less electricity, and burn less fossil fuels.
The Earth, in fact, is one big island. We are all connected, especially when it comes to global warming.
(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], has taught college in Hawai’i, writes for the Hawai’i Island Journal, and spends part of each year in Sonoma County.)