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Photos of North Shore homes preparing to fall into the ocean are sure to stand out, especially when placed with an article about rising sea levels (“Turning the Tide?” Insight, Star-Advertiser, Sept. 18). A news report from the same day, “Protecting Waikiki,” quoted a sentence: “The city says we need to plan to add 3.2 feet by 2030.” The University of Hawaii professor’s comment noted that “the possibility of sea level rise exceeding 6 feet is Sex… is now our reality” (Island Voices, September 18). Statements like this are reminiscent of the hysterical stories of chickens whipping the masses: “The sky is falling!”
Climate change is undoubtedly real, and sea levels have risen for thousands of years. But should state and county policies to address climate change be based on facts or speculation?
Starting with the causes of beach erosion, we all know that large storms can cause surges of over 20 feet — especially on the North Shore. The second reason is tides, the gravity of the moon being the main reason. On any given day, tidal activity can be 2.5 feet and even higher during spring tides.
Third is sea level rise (SLR), but by how much? Based on very accurate satellite data from 1993 to 2021, the average growth rate is 0.13 inches per year, which equates to an increase of 1.3 inches per decade or 13 inches per century. And the trend has been steady.
Bad days for North Shore homes could be the result of a 20-foot storm surge, which could coincide with a 3-foot high tide, combined with 1.3 inches of sea level rise over the past decade. The conclusion about relative causation is obvious, but it’s certainly not rhetoric. The SLR is used as a pretext to propose blanket land use restrictions. Handy to cite but possibly misleading?
As Steven Koonin, a professor of theoretical physics, laments in his book Unsettled, “Most of the public’s portrayal of climate science comes from … an effort to persuade rather than inform .” Perhaps policy leaders should recognize the techniques and scare tactics used to advance certain agendas. It has been said that the search for veracity should begin by examining “the less truthful the truth, the less likely it is.” Based on the facts above, it would take more than 500 years for the sea level to rise by 6 feet without very dramatic acceleration.
Should the anecdotal incident of several homes built on sandy beaches on less than a mile of shoreline should dictate a dramatic expansion of restrictions along Oahu’s remaining 111 miles of shoreline? The Honolulu City Council is considering Bill 41, which would have wide-ranging effects — increasing the recently enacted 40-foot statewide setback by 50 percent, plus an erosion-based formula that could mean a total setback of 130 feet. On an 80-foot frontage lot, that means more than 10,000 square feet without buildings.
Testimony on Bill 41 indicated many concerns, such as the enforced destruction of existing structures. The increased financial impact of the proposed setback could easily run into the billions. Are cities and counties prepared to pay fair compensation for such expropriations? How does a reduction in the assessed value of property affect city and county property tax revenue?
No one can predict the future with certainty, but our view is that the sky is not falling. Are we being led astray by those who use endangered North Shore homes as an excuse for blanket land use restrictions when SLR is actually a minimal factor?
Maybe it’s time for the City Council to consider introducing Bill 41 to see if the SLR’s speed in the next few years is consistent with the historical speed of 1.3 inches per decade or the projected speed of 3.2 feet by 2030. Assuming the 6-foot rate is “our present reality,” we leave the judgment of the credibility of this claim to the reader.
Retired U.S. Air Force meteorologist John Kim and retired businessman Ed MacNaughton represent the Hawaii Institute for Practical Policy.
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