Bill proposes new Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience for Hawaiʻi County
May 15, 2023, 6:14 AM HST
Before entering office, Hawai‘i County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball was a climate scientist and owner of a consulting firm that assists in carbon mitigation and climate change adaptation policy.
Now, after months of discussions and with the support of Mayor Mitch Roth’s administration, Kimball is thrilled to co-introduce Bill 48 with Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas that would create a new county Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience.
“I just think it’s the right thing to do for our community and to protect our island and our island’s people over time,” Kimball said. “We are in in a vulnerable position being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so the more we can do to ensure our island’s own sustainability and to make sure that people can live here safely and comfortability, that’s an important priority that I think we all have in terms of making sure that Hawai‘i County is a place that everybody can thrive.”
The bill will be heard Tuesday during the Council’s Governmental Operations and External Affairs Committee meeting that begins at 1 p.m. in Council Chambers at the Hawai‘i County Building in Hilo.
The legislation would establish the new cabinet-level office, which would be responsible for coordinating and managing policies to promote Hawai‘i County’s sustainability and resilience in response to the impacts of climate change and other natural and manmade hazards.
The bill also seeks to promote environmental justice and equity by ensuring all of the new agency’s programs consider how they will impact low- and middle-income people and groups that have been historically marginalized so the benefits of those programs reach all Big Island residents.
The new office would be under the umbrella of the county managing director’s office and have a new chapter in county code to govern it.
Kimball said the County — with the brain trust, capacity, wisdom and knowledge that exists on the Big Island to guide it — has a tremendous opportunity to be a leader in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change for a sustainable future.
Villegas said the new office will “ensure that the County of Hawai‘i continues to align itself with pono priorities, practices and procedures to mitigate the effects of climate change, promote sustainability and build resilience.”
Villegas also said the county will have access to grants and federal funding once the office is established.
While Roth and his administration are focused on sustainability — and there are several county plans already in place that deal with climate change and sustainability — the new office and government code would ensure work being done now continues in the future.
“The administration, Mitch Roth and I really are wanting to create a legacy with this office that persists beyond our time right now,” said Kimball, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in environmental science. “I feel a deep kuleana [responsibility] for the next generation to be taking action now and not just push the can down the road.”
The office would be responsible for finding ways to fill the gaps in implementing existing sustainability, climate and resilience plans as well as creating new policies and programs.
It would identify ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels and becoming more energy efficient — anything to cut down emissions and increase opportunities for sequestration of those carbons. The new agency also would work to prepare the county for more severe drought, storms and sea level rise, such as moving or constructing critical infrastructure away from inundation zones.
The initial plan calls for the office to be staffed by five people, led by a sustainability administrator whose position would be filled through civil service recruitment based on merit for a term of six years with the possibility of renewal for another six. There also would be a public outreach and communications coordinator, data visualization analyst, policy analyst and grant specialist.
The new agency would have a preliminary budget of about $870,000, more than half of which would go toward staffing costs. But Kimball said she expects much of the funding will come from grants, including those available through the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act dedicated to climate adaptation, mitigation, resilience and sustainability efforts.
She said funding also is available from other federal programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant; the PROTECT Discretionary Grant Program through the U.S. Department of Transportation that is aimed at improving resilience to natural hazards and climate change impacts; and resiliency programs through the U.S. Department of Defense.
Sustainability efforts would tie into sustainable development goals established by the United Nations for concerns that include natural resource management, tourism and agriculture.
Resilience measures would focus on long-term solutions in the event of disaster such as being able to quickly stand up response teams during an emergency like the 2018 Kīlauea eruption, making sure there are evacuation routes and even upgrading infrastructure such as bridges.
It also would include education and public outreach to ensure individual communities can be resilient on their own, if necessary.
On the equity front, which Kimball said has been a big issue for a long time on the Big Island, environmental justice would be a priority, making sure impacts of climate change and efforts to adapt and mitigate them do not affect one population more than another. That could mean implementing programs to make it easier for low- or moderate-income families to get solar power and electric vehicles.
Furthermore, the measure calls for establishing a County climate action revolving fund that would support policies and programs promoting the objectives of the new office and even save some money. Kimball channeled Benjamin Franklin, saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“Instead of having to focus on recovery after something has already happened, if we were investing more in resilience and preparedness, we’re ultimately going to save the County a significant amount of money on the order of 6 to 1,” she said.
The 6-to-1 figure is the generally accepted calculation for the return on investment by acting in advance and preparing.
The County doing more to reduce its reliance of fossil fuels and become more energy efficient also would result in savings on energy use that could be put into the revolving fund to be used for new projects such as installing solar panels on county buildings and transitioning to energy efficient lightbulbs.
Time is of the essence, and not just because of increasing signs and warnings of climate change’s wrath.
There’s urgency so the County can capture as much as it can from grant funding. Some programs, including the DOT’s PROTECT grant and the implementation piece of the Climate Pollution Reduction Grant, have deadlines nearing. It would be more than beneficial to have a new office up and running to show the County is ready to accept and use those dollars.
“Bill 48 will play a huge role in our administration’s ongoing efforts toward forging a sustainable Hawai‘i Island, where our keiki can thrive and succeed for generations,” Roth said. “Climate resilience and environmental action must become a core function of the County moving forward to protect and preserve our precious ‘āina and the Hawaiian cultural practices that are directly connected to it.”