Schatz talks climate change at Maui refuge

WAIHEE – One of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s “missions in life” is to make sure lawmakers of every party understand that climate change is a problem and it should be addressed immediately.

“Climate change is real. It’s caused by humans and it is solvable. And you all know that. (But) the only place where there is a debate . . . it’s not here, it’s not even in Kahului, it’s in the United States Congress,” Schatz said while speaking to about 50 people at the Waihe’e Coastal Dunes & Wetlands Refuge on Saturday afternoon. “So one of my missions in life is to try make sure that Republicans and Democrats, moderates and conservatives, liberals, progressives, whatever label they want to give themselves, they understand this is the big challenge of our generation. This is our obligation to make sure we address this problem.”

Schatz told The Maui News that he is trying to help the situation via legislation in Congress.

He and two other Democratic senators – Barbara Boxer of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island – are working on legislation that would assign a fee to carbon pollution and use revenues from the penalties to fund clean energy.

But he said that the “next big fight” currently for Congress will be in supporting President Barack Obama’s initiative to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon pollution from power plants.

Schatz said that he expects a push back on that issue.

“Republicans in Congress will try and overturn those regulations,” he said.

The senator’s comments came as officials and volunteers at the refuge spent several hours Saturday placing approximately 700 cuttings of indigenous akiaki grass into pots and marking the projected coastal erosion areas in the refuge if sea levels continue to rise at the current pace.

The events were held by Organizing for Action Maui, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the policies that the American people voted for in 2012, a release said. OFA has branches across the nation.

Scott Fisher, director of conservation for the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust which owns the refuge, said that each year approximately 9 to 10 inches of the shoreline in Waihee is lost due to various reasons, including climate change.

He said as that as the climate changes and sea level rises, it poses a threat to the 277-acre refuge’s plants and wildlife, including the Hawaiian stilt and the Hawaiian coot. It could also have impacts on the green sea turtles that sometimes nest in the area, as well as monk seals that also occasionally show up on the shoreline.

Over the last 100 years, about 70 feet of shoreline has been lost in Waihee, some of it due to the necessary construction of the Kahului Harbor, Fisher said. In the future there could be another 70 feet lost.

Fisher told the group that it is hard to see the work of the trust and volunteers – which have been successful at getting native plants to grow back in the area – get ruined by seawater entering the wetland area due to climate change.

“That is a tragedy beyond compare.”

But, he said, people can be proactive and prepare now for the future.

“We can be resilient. We can prepare right now.”

For example, Fisher said after his presentation, the akiaki grass will probably be planted in the refuge in April or May. He said that akiaki grass holds the soil well, and during the March 2011 tsunami the akiaki kept soil in place at the refuge, which saw ocean surges.

While the grass plantings will not solve the whole problem, Fisher said it can help.

Ted Clement, executive director of the land trust, told the group that when people hear about climate change they get scared. Clement said to follow the saying “think globally and act locally.” That is how people can get involved with the land trust, he said.

One way to fight climate change is to develop and enhance more “carbon sinks” (areas that absorb carbon) such as meadows and forests and areas such as the refuge, Clement said.

He added that while new developments add to our carbon footprint, environmental areas help reduce the carbon impact.

Schatz said that getting fellow lawmakers to believe that climate issues are real is an education process.

“We have a majority of senators that understand that climate change is real and that we need to transition to clean energy,” he said. “But there are some folks in the other party who are so afraid of being attacked by the oil companies that they won’t say it out loud.”

Schatz said that “the science has been settled” that climate change is real.

“Just as we had to go through an education process with women’s rights and civil rights and more recently immigration, if we keep pushing and the people are behind us, members of Congress will eventually catch up with the constituents.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at