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Lawmakers Still Hope To Pass Climate Legislation in 2021

Chip Fletcher
Erosion on the North Shore of Oahu. Maui lawmaker Tina Wildberger wants to create a new agency to oversee beach erosion, which is expected to worsen in coming decades.

While much of focus for the 2021 legislative session will be on responding to the health and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, some state lawmakers are still pushing for policies to  address climate change.

Big ticket items like targets for cutting national carbon emissions or raising infrastructure ahead of sea level rise are often the focus in discussions of climate change.

However, local governments can take on plenty of smaller efforts according to Enrich Sala, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who now advocates for action on climate change.

“Shifting to electric public transportation or mandating emissions from buildings for example,” Sala said in a phone interview.”

Last year’s legislative session was largely derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing lawmakers to divert focus away from other priorities like reducing Hawaii’s cost of living.

Climate advocates want this year to be different. North Kona Representative Nicole Lowen , who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, says climate hawks are planning to introduce a variety of bills related to reducing emissions.

“We’re looking at a number of bills that set goals for the transition of the transportation sector to electric vehicles or vehicles powered by renewable sources,” Lowen told HPR.

Measures to expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure and make new buildings more energy efficient will also be introduced.

Climate change adaptation will also be on the agenda. New environmental conditions and more frequent severe weather events are expected to impact coastal areas over the coming decades.

South Maui representative Tina Wildberger wants to revamp building codes and require all new construction be able to withstand a Category 4 Hurricane.

Wildberger also wants to create a new state agency to manage shoreline erosion. She argues the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which currently has jurisdiction over Hawaii’s coastlines, has turned a blind eye to seawall construction that over time has destroyed local beaches.

“That’s something we need to move away from,” Wildberger said.

“Our sea level is rising and what are going to do with these shoreline properties? We’ve got to stop shoreline hardening or we are not going to have any beaches left for future generations.”

With the state facing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, any measure that requires new spending or tax incentives will face an uphill battle.

One climate-friendly proposal that may gain new support this year is a tax on carbon emissions.  

Wildberger and  several other lawmakers proposed different versions of a carbon tax last year, although none of the bills ultimately passed. The idea has broad support from economists in general as one of the easiest ways to reduce carbon.

“It’s going to be all about bringing money in, so this is a great year for carbon tax,” Wildberger predicted.

“Anything that will bring money into the state coffers will be popular.”

Representative Lowen told HPR that she plans to introduce a carbon tax proposal this year. However, she acknowledges that there will be political pressure on lawmakers not to take any action that will increase costs on local businesses and households during a deep recession.

Still, she says the state needs to take “sweeping action” on climate change.

“I do support some of these measures if they’re done the right way to make sure we aren’t having unintended negative consequences on anyone,” Lowen explained.

Both lawmakers say immediate pandemic-related concerns like food security, housing, and the budget will likely take priority at the Capitol this year.

However they still want to see action on longer term problems like climate, and not have them fall by the way side for a second year in a row.

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