It's time to turn climate change into an opportunity for the future of our island

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Global warming isn’t coming – it’s already here (and here). Our island’s response must come in two parts: a political determination to make every effort to mitigate the most dangerous effects of climate change before it’s too late; and a conscious effort to plan proactively for what we know is coming: sea-level rise, extreme weather patterns, and geopolitical and financial instability.

The City & County of Honolulu is where we need to work. I propose that we take a comprehensive, long-view approach to climate change, using a long-term climate financing model to prepare our city for the future.


Honolulu needs to build approximately $8 billion of new affordable housing in the urban core, mauka of the sea-level rise exposure area (SLRXA). Areas such as Moiliili are a smart place to invest city resources to redevelop and densify our housing inventory. My mental model is the medium-rise housing prevalent in cities such as Paris, where smart, pedestrian-focused design and an elegant aesthetics combine with public funding to create a beautiful city.

Utilities and Infrastructure

Honolulu’s infrastructure is already over-extended. Sewers are beyond capacity; water lines break regularly; the electrical grid begs for modernization. A new Green Deal for Honolulu should rapidly upgrade our infrastructure both to allow for smart growth in the urban core as well as to anticipate more severe weather patterns. Utility lines should be moved underground. And we should explore a public acquisition of the electrical grid so that solar, wind and wave energy providers can better compete against fossil fuel providers.

Moving rail mauka

The current trajectory for rail places the town segment within the SLRXA. We need to move rail, and all the housing and retail that it is designed to attract, firmly out of the flood zone, and to a mauka alignment connecting to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Kakaako, whose road level will have to be raised to accommodate the inevitable flooding, should be serviced by a flexible, at-grad tram. And rail should be underground, built using a boring machine similar to what the city used to construct the Kaneohe-Kailua Wastewater Tunnel. It’s a proven technology, and will be easier to build than the elevated rail, which will run into many obstacles: real estate acquisitions, burials, utility relocations, business bankruptcies, traffic snarls, and general resentment.

Restoring food security

Oahu is notoriously food-insecure, with the preponderance of our foods imported from North America. Recent political decisions on projects like Ho‘opili have only contributed to the loss of agricultural land to suburban sprawl. My hope, though, is that by consciously investing our efforts in urban density, we can preserve remaining agricultural resources and restore a modicum of food security. This means opposing sprawl throughout the island including the North Shore, and using devices such as a carbon-tax on imports to allow for local food producers to compete against artificially-low prices.

Reinvesting in a city for us all

There are two ways to pay for this massive reinvestment in our city. The first is through a Climate Bond, which is a new financial vehicle used around the world to finance climate adaptation projects. A dedicated carbon tax could be used for this purpose. The second is a general bond, whose coupons could be offered to sale to Honolulu’s citizens. This would allow for our citizens to directly benefit from the public reinvestment of the expanded city economy, instead of the benefit flowing only to the major institutional investors who are currently being sought to invest in rail, for instance.

A long-term public reinvestment in our core infrastructure will dramatically expand opportunities for entrepreneurs and established corporations. Construction will actually increase, because of the direct public investment in housing and the new sewer and utility work. And an expanded tax base through new urban construction will allow for an expanded revenue to the city, which should again be reinvested in core programs like parks and recreation.

I look forward to working with subject-matter experts and my colleagues on the Council and the Mayor to advance a comprehensive plan that benefits us all.