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A local law professor reports from Denmark

By Stuart Coleman // December 16, 2009 // Originally published on

MAXINE BURKETT // Maxine Burkett, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Richardson School of Law, is currently attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Burkett also serves as the inaugural director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP). In that capacity, Burkett leads projects to address climate change law, policy and planning for island communities in the Pacific region and beyond. Honolulu Weekly spoke with Burkett earlier this week.

What’s it like being in Copenhagen with some of the top climate change scientists and activists from around the world?

It has been an electric experience. There are scientists, delegation members from over 200 countries and members of non-governmental organizations from around the world with as many diverse missions. I am working to make linkages with other island communities from whom Hawaii can learn and to whom Hawaii can offer partnership and collaboration. I have found fellow Hawaii residents and colleagues, but by and large we are underrepresented here.

We are one of the few nations in the world not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Is it frustrating to be in Copenhagen knowing that the U.S. has still not come up with a firm commitment to confront this dire issue?

Yes it is frustrating; we are the only developed country that has not signed the Kyoto Protocol. And the U.S. is a pariah in the negotiations. The difference in the general mood of negotiations with a new administration is evident. Yet there is still a great impasse on a number of key issues. A far greater commitment to reduce emissions and provide funding for developing countries is essential for the U.S. to truly participate in good faith. Yet the political realities at home are surely putting the negotiators here in a difficult position, even if they themselves wish to see more definitive action. On a related note, there is a palpable and stark difference between the position taken by the U.S. government and the number of Americans who are here advocating on behalf of NGOs. Some of the American NGO voices have been the most demanding of swift and meaningful action from the US government.

In spite of overwhelming evidence, there are still many people in this country who refuse to believe that global warming is a real threat to our way of life. How do you respond to people like that?

The first thing I say to deniers is, “I sure wish you were right.” I don’t enjoy contemplating a dangerous and uncertain future for my daughter or my niece and nephew. But the fact is that every serious credible scientist knows that we’re well beyond this “debate” and that the greatest departures from the initial climate forecasting have been in the opposite direction. That is, the impacts of climate change are more severe and more rapid and the ability for our Earth’s systems to absorb these changes are far less than previously thought. And this is being observed right now (and being experienced by the most vulnerable today–with crops destroyed by salt-water inundation in the Pacific). All of the efforts made to mitigate or adapt to climate change will have multiple benefits. Doing the hard work of finding alternative and renewable sources of energy and making our ecosystems more resilient are necessary for countless reasons, climate change being the single most significant over the long term.

How will climate change affect Hawaii and Polynesia and what can we do to mitigate its effects? Are we going to become the Venice of the Pacific?

Sea level rise, severe storm events, ocean acidification, changes in precipitation patterns affecting rainfall (either flooding or extended drought conditions) are all impacts that we can continue to expect. Our Pacific island neighbors are currently experiencing many of these impacts more severely than we are at this point. Some areas of Hawaii may well suffer significant sea level rise and wave inundation, rendering us the Venice of the Pacific–though it will be far less quaint and attractive for our tourism industry. A significant additional concern will be coping with the growing people and communities of the Pacific that will be displaced due to their lands become less hospitable. How we cope with this inevitability will be a defining moment for us here in the Pacific and in Hawaii specifically.

As the director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation, you know better than most people how dire the threat of climate change is. But as a young mother, how do you balance that depressing knowledge of looming disaster with the hope for positive changes and a better future for your daughter?

A proverb I find incredibly inspiring is, “When you pray, move your feet.” I’m doing this work because of my daughter.

Do you think the U.S. Congress will pass climate change legislation fairly soon?

This is a bit unclear to me. Perhaps there will be greater movement in the spring of 2010. What is clear is that both the House and Senate versions are woefully inadequate from the perspective of climate science–the cuts in emissions must be between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 based on 1990 levels. The cuts proposed by Congress are 3 percent.

What was the best part of the conference and what new insights will you bring home to Hawaii from Copenhagen?

Seeing the number of observer organizations, including the inspiring youth delegation, was a great highlight. I had many fascinating conversations with other conference attendees and have been able to forge relationships that will hopefully benefit Hawaii in the short and long term.

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