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Sen. Karl Rhoads: What Hawaii Should Be Doing To Address Global Warming – Honolulu Civil Beat

Civil Beat IDEAS editor Julia Steele sat down with Hawaii state Sen. Karl Roads for a discussion about global warming and the vulnerability of Oahu’s low-lying coastal areas. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has long been interested in the problems the islands are facing as climate change continues. He considers global warming to be the most difficult and most challenging problem Hawaii faces, especially the south coasts.

Civil Beat: The Hawaii Climate Commission did a report in 2017 that concluded we might be facing a 3.2-foot sea level rise by 2100, possibly even as soon as 2060. When and how has this all become real for you?

I’m sort of a paranoid guy, so I have been thinking about it for a while. People — well, at least the oil companies — have known about global warming for 50 years. I was still in D.C. when I started learning about it. Of course, there was a woman I was interested in. She was a climate scientist and — this was around 1990 — I was asking her, “So what do we do?” And she said, “We’ve got to reduce carbon emissions.”

When we bought a place in Chinatown, we were about 35 years old and we considered it: Would the building be underwater by the time we died? So personally, the concerns go back a long way.

As a political matter, only fairly recently have I been on the right committees. When I first came over to the Senate, I was put on agriculture and the environment. That’s when I started realizing that Hawaii has actually done a lot compared to most states. But when you look at the magnitude of the problem, we haven’t done enough.

I was looking at a carbon tax. I think 162 Nobel laureate economists from all points of the spectrum say a carbon tax would work. So I was like, well, if no one else is going to do it, I’m going to throw in a carbon bill because this is a crisis. I don’t have kids myself, but not many generations from now we’re going to be dealing with this in a major way, not just from time to time as we are right now.

When did you introduce the carbon tax bill?

In both 2019 and 2020. It didn’t pass but it’s still an accomplishment and pretty cutting edge.

Sen. Karl Rhoads in his office at the State Capitol during this interview. 

What would that bill have done?

Anything that is made with carbon or has carbon in it or any relationship to carbon where you need to put carbon in the atmosphere to produce it, we would tax it.

That simple concept is very difficult to put on paper, especially when you have all these different kinds of fuels that have different carbon content. So it was a very complicated bill. But the concept was easy.

Did the projections in the 2017 report make things much more concrete for you?

I was chair of the Water and Land Committee, which doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over environmental policy but which did make me an ex officio member of the Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Task Force. I attended those meetings for a couple of years. That was when I realized all the scientific types were saying, “We have to do something now and the best thing we can do is raise the price of carbon.” That was a crystallizing event.

What were some of the specific things you were hearing in those meetings?

When the commission came out with a report, I looked at it carefully. They have these different ways of measuring the frequency of storms, the run-off king tides and underlying sea level rise. They have these maps where you can see if your house is going to be underwater in 50 years. You can dial it up and down: Here’s what happens with one foot, two feet, three. I started looking and it’s like, “This is a disaster!” At three feet the shoreline is in McCully somewhere. That definitely brought the point home. And at the same time I was reading reports saying if anything, in 100 years it’s likely to be more than three feet. Pretty much all of downtown Honolulu is underwater at that point.

There’s a lot of, “It’s not that bad yet.” But the problem is that when it gets bad, it’s going to be really bad. And you can’t just turn the switch and say, OK, we’re dialing back to 1980.

So let’s talk about what you think we should be doing.

At this point, we need to be planning. Planning isn’t everything but for a project this big, you can’t go forward intelligently without a plan. And the first part of that is a whole bunch of cost-benefit analysis. Does it make sense to armor Waikiki and pump a bunch of water out of it every day? Or do we actually need to start tearing buildings down when their useful life is over? Or maybe before their useful life is over if seawater is invading the bottom floors?

And really thinking about how much money we’re talking about. Just throwing numbers out more or less randomly: Is it worth $15 billion to build a dyke around Waikiki?

The 2017 study estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses. And I don’t think that included infrastructure losses.

I think that study just assumed that’s what would happen if we just didn’t do anything — these neighborhoods were going underwater and people would have to move. I don’t think there was a number in there for specific plans for problem spots. The ballpark figures I’m putting out there are from what Larry Kane — who worked with me in the Legislature during the 2020 session — and I discovered about New Orleans and Miami and Houston-Galveston. I think Houston-Galveston was $25 billion.

It’s all price sensitive. So what’s it worth to Waikiki? I don’t really know. I would guess that if you count the buildings down there that are worth $300 million apiece, it’s probably worth quite a bit.

A just-released design project from UH’s School of Architecture and the state Office of Planning re-conceives Oahu’s South Shore to allow for sea-level rise. This conceptual diagram illustrates the proposed South Shore Promenade, on the current site of the Ala Wai golf course. The walkway is elevated above wetlands that would accommodate flooding and provide habitat for native flora and fauna. UHCDC/ Stilgenbauer et al.

What are your ideas about how this is all paid for?

Politically, that’s a very, very difficult question. The state collects a lot of money off transient accommodations in Waikiki — 4.5% GET plus I think it’s like 10% or 11% TAT, so it’s about 15%. And then, of course, the city collects a bunch more money in real property taxes.

The point is that the state and the city have skin in the game. If that economic engine shuts down or slows down, our revenues shut down or slow down too. But the flip side of that is that the profits the hotels are making are enormous.

I think there’s going to be some real push and pull between the private sector and the government saying, “Yeah, we get some money from this, but why should we be paying for 100% or even 50% of improvements that need to be made when you’re the guys who are making the money.”

In many cases, these places are owned by real estate investment trusts and the vast bulk of their money gets taxed somewhere else. And, of course, the private sector in this instance will act like they’re just barely making it and are already contributing so much to Hawaii. And when they’re talking to their investors, they’re saying, “We’re making so much money in Waikiki.”

Of course, there’s thousands of people who live and work there so there are other ways that the state benefits and people benefit directly.

That’s from a legislator’s perspective. It’s a gnarly mess.

Another conceptual redesign from the design study depicts elevated boardwalks that would hover above ecological priority zones, wetlands and Hawaiian fishponds in Kalihi Kai. UHCDC/ Stilgenbauer et al.

Have you seen anything comparable — an industry facing real challenges and a question of whether the industry was going to cover its costs or the taxpayers were going to?

Well, sure, a whole bunch of industries during the pandemic. The airline industry is a strange industry. A woman I knew who worked for TWA back in the day said she had never seen a company lose so much money for so long and still be in business. In the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve been making money hand over fist. And I was very skeptical of giving them a bailout because that’s what Chapter 11 bankruptcy is for. You get your protection from your creditors, restructure your debt. And I think that same dynamic will happen in Waikiki. The Hilton Hawaiian Village is I believe the busiest Hilton in the world, and they make tons of money.

This view shows the proposed South Shore Promenade along the mauka edge of the Ala Wai Canal. The elevated boardwalk is designed to serve as a public open space while allowing for the unhindered flow of water and protecting the proposed wetland habitat from human disturbance. UHCDC/ Stilgenbauer et al

So going back to the fundamentals: There you are in your apartment in Chinatown. It’s 40 years from now. And you’re so happy and relieved because the things that you felt needed to be done were done. What would have been done?

Well, it varies by location. Chinatown was built a little bit on a hill so the worst-case scenario for that is not going to happen for a while. Iwilei across the river is a totally different story. The water is supposed to get up to the corner of Mayor Wright homes, which is the corner of King and Liliha, within 100 years.

I think what would need to have been done there is armoring, because the harbor’s on the sea side of it, and by definition, harbors are armored because you have to be able to get in deep water right up to the edge.

And we are undergoing a roughly $300 million harbor renovation project. I’m pretty sure that they’re akamai enough to know that they’ve got to think about what happens when sea level rises.

I think in Iwilei I would feel like we had accomplished something if we had adopted something along the lines that the School of Architecture study seems to be saying, which is to let that become wetland again.

But wherever we decided that we couldn’t afford to do that, we’d probably have to start raising buildings up off the ground a little bit. I think that’s probably a rational response in that area. I don’t think it probably makes any sense to build dikes over there.

As Larry and I discovered, the substrate in Honolulu does not lend itself to just dikes, you have to pump it if you’re going to keep something dry behind the dike.

So a success would be more wetlands in that area. Some of the dwellings in the lowest-lying areas would be gone. And as we get to the edge of what will be the new water boundary line, we’ll have raised buildings.

With Waikiki, I keep coming back to his cost-benefit stuff. I think probably it would make sense to have a dyke and pumping stations and artificial beaches. And as buildings became obsolete, you’d fill and build on top of them. And that way you could keep Waikiki the economic engine it is. I think that’s what success looks like. Not sure who pays for that success but I think that’s what it looks like.

A section map from the School of Architecture’s and Office of State Planning’s design project. The 450-page project was aimed at fostering dialogue on future planning from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor. UHCDC/ Stilgenbauer et al

Did you want to say anything more about who pays for that success?

I suspect that the government will end up paying more than their fair share, considering how much of the wealth is privatized and the adage about what businesses do these days: privatize gains and socialize loss. So to me, success here would be some fair balance between the people who are going to make the most money out of it and those of us who work in the hotels and make our living that way.

I’ve been a supporter of public financing for campaigns. And the reason for that is I do think we get captured by industries fairly routinely. It’s the vocal minority who’s willing to spend money on people’s campaigns versus the poorer and not-as-engaged majority who hire us to look out for their interests. And we sometimes fail.

So going back to your apartment in Chinatown 40 years from now. You’ve had this illustrious political career. And you think, well, the Legislature and the state government also handled this just as they should have. What did they do?

I think the next steps are looking at specific situations and figuring out what we need to do on the ground. And I think the Department of Transportation has already started that with highways, because especially on Oahu there’s highways that are very close to the water and they’re not going to be able to stay there much longer. So then the hard part is coming up with the money to make those changes that are going to have to be made.

I think a carbon tax can very well be part of that, not only because it will help worldwide carbon numbers go down, but also because it will be a significant source of funding for making changes that we have to make as a result of global warming.

So I would see a carbon tax that we spend armoring, adapting, retreating and then maybe in some cases actually buying out. There are a couple of states that have been buying out landowners in low-lying areas. Very expensive proposition so I’m not sure how apropos that’s going to be in Hawaii. But maybe there are some specific spots that makes sense.

I’m not underestimating the difficulty. But if we make rational decisions that would be what I would view as success.

Hopefully we can use a carbon tax to kill two birds with one stone: reduce carbon emissions worldwide and use that money to make the changes we need to make. Global warming really is the only issue. Everything else flows from what happens on it.

Well, this is a big one, as you say.

I can’t imagine anything that would be bigger than global warming. I guess if we had a meteor headed straight for Earth that would be worse. But this is about as bad.

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