Rising Sea Level and Settler Hubris Ahead

Ironwoods at Kailua Beach Park, photo by Judy Rhorer.

We got off the plane from California and headed to the windward side of O’ahu. We immediately took off our shoes, changed into shorts, and headed for the beach. My heart sank encountering the ironwoods at Kailua beach park, their roots exposed, desperately trying to hold on, like fingers reaching out as we waded past in the shore break. It wasn’t this way when I was in high school, and it’s accelerating – there’s so much more erosion than when I was here in January.

Recent news about climate change has not been good, but those grasping roots demanded I pay more attention. In February 2022 NOAA, NASA and five other agencies released a report projecting a foot of sea level rise by 2050 – and that’s regardless of any reduction in emissions. In mid-July we learned Senator Joe Manchin killed President Biden’s climate bill. That same week, an historic south swell tied to sea level rise swamped homes, businesses and roads on all the Hawaiian islands. Then the UK declared its first ever code-red extreme heat warning and President Biden said the U.S. is in a climate “emergency,” but didn’t officially declare it. Every year the students in my classes are increasingly mad at me and my peers for not doing enough, for saddling them with climate catastrophe. We can’t seem to think one generation in the future, much less seven.

At COP26 last fall in Glasgow, former President Obama told young people to “stay angry.” He noted that he has two daughters in their early 20s, so he knows that it’s “not easy being young today.” One of those daughters carries a Hawaiian name, and all of the Obamas spent lots of time on Kailua beach during his presidency. Furthermore, Barack/Barry didn’t just frequent Sandy’s (the body surfing beach) when he was in high school, like me, he also came to Kailua beach to hang out.

What does he, and what do his daughters, think when they see the now imperiled ironwoods? Do they stop to consider the yellow caution tape wrapped around those roots (read: Beware, trees trying to live)? We can’t know, but we do have clues, at least for Barack, and unfortunately, they don’t suggest an understanding of seven generations or a deviation from settler hubris.

As climate change is causing unprecedented sea level rise, sea walls are getting increasing attention. Yet many of us would have been unaware of the sea wall on the Waimanalo property Obama purchased in 2015 were it not for extensive joint reporting by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica. The Obama White House, and Obama himself, worked hard to play down the purchase, evading questions and having workers and neighbors sign confidentiality agreements.

Sea walls are one of the most commonly implemented technologies in the arsenal known as “shoreline hardening” or “shoreline armoring,” thus epitomizing a domineering, oppositional, and fearful colonial approach to the natural world (some of the following will appear in my forthcoming article in American Quarterly September 2022). We now know that sea walls do incredible environmental damage, interrupting the natural flow of the ocean, drowning beaches, destroying coastal ecosystems. Studies have found that nearly one quarter of beaches on O‘ahu, Maui, and Kaua‘i have been lost completely or significantly reduced in size over the last century because of sea walls. A 2020 study focused on O‘ahu finds shoreline hardening to be “the greatest threat to beach conservation under conditions of accelerating SLR [sea level rise].” It’s hard to think of a more graphic depiction of settler hubris than building walls to control and hold back the sea.

In ancestral times, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) built sea walls, but theirs were walls that worked with, not against the ocean. Some of the best examples are rock walls that enclose fishponds called loko kuapā. These ponds take advantage of tidal flows, natural bays, watershed, springs, and freshwater streams to capture and grow juvenile fish. In fact, mo‘olelo (stories, legends, histories) suggest that fishponds were likely first constructed as a response to changing climate and a need to cultivate fish.

Hi‘ilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o He‘eia, a nonprofit restoring the He‘eia fishpond in Kāne‘ohe Bay remarks, “we are living representations of climate change resiliency.” The mo‘olelo “shows we need to evolve fishing practices.” Loko kuapā cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is estimated that there were more than 488 fishponds across the Hawaiian Islands pre-contact, and there are currently a number (including He‘eia) being restored and reactivated to sustainably feed local communities. So, Kanaka Maoli fishpond walls were/are a way to adapt and work with the environment, including changes in climate, not an attempt to dominate it.

Meanwhile, down the coast from Paepae o He‘eia, the people managing the Obama Waimānalo property have exploited every legal loophole and played Big Boy politics to ensure not just the continuance of an already existing sea wall, but the massive expansion of that wall. To sell the property, the former owner requested and easily obtained (following an historical pattern) an easement allowing the continuance of an existing sea wall for another fifty-five years. This owner said, “If the wall goes out then half the house is going to be left hanging with nothing much underneath it.” These easements allow property owners to essentially lease the public land under sea walls – all shorelines in Hawai’i are part of a public trust. The one-time cost of this easement, $61,400. The selling price of the property, $8.7 million. The fantasy is that money and sea walls secure settler claims to private property – that the land won’t be washed away under your feet, that you won’t be “left hanging” like those ironwoods.

Marty Nesbitt, “First Friend” to Barack Obama, and his team have repeatedly argued that their actions were/are “consistent with and informed by the analysis of our consultants, and the laws, regulations and perspectives of the State of Hawaii.” But when I spoke with Chip Fletcher, a marine geologist at the University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean and Earth Science and a leading expert on shoreline hardening, he called this case,

a prime example of a continental management regime with colonial attitudes about dominion over nature forced on an island setting. Skilled consultants and attorneys learned long ago how to manipulate the system and undercut whatever good these laws are capable of achieving. In the end, despite multiple legal decisions protecting beaches as a public trust, the policy system tramples Indigenous, nature-based practices and has historically failed to achieve meaningful conservation.

Fletcher pointed to multiple scientific papers studying coastal erosion in Hawai‘i dating back to the 1990s that show the harm done by sea walls and other forms of shoreline armoring (again, even the militaristic language demonstrates “colonial attitudes about dominion over nature”).

As an academic, I appreciate the scientific evidence, but it’s the tree roots that have touched my heart, and it’s the young folks who are demanding my attention. Those are the same young people Obama told to “stay angry,” and they include his daughters. It’s past time for Barack and I to move from settler hubris to humility. It’s time to wrap his, and all sea walls, in yellow caution tape (read: Beware, area of active short-sighted settler entitlement). It’s time to turn to Indigenous models of climate resiliency, including loko kuapā. Climate change is about settler hubris and disregard for long time, generational time. It’s past time. As Hi‘ilei Kawelo told us, “we need to evolve…”

Judy Rohrer is a scholar-activist who has written previously about whiteness, racial politics, and settler colonialism for both academic and popular audiences. Rohrer is currently the Director of Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies at Eastern Washington University.