[Originally published in Ka Leo, July 21, 2015]

by Leilei Joy Shih, Guest Writer PhD Candidate in Oceanography, Sierra Club Oʻahu, UH Graduate Student Organization

On the morning of May 21, 2015, students, faculty and community members packed the hearing room in the IT building at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Although summer break had already begun, there were members of the Graduate Student Organization, undergrads and representatives of climate change advocacy group 350Hawaii.org. In this company, the UH Board of Regents voted unanimously to divest its $66 million endowment from fossil fuels by 2018, making the UH system the largest educational institution to divest from fossil fuels.

Now the community is eager to see the privately run University of Hawai‘i Foundation, which manages a $261.5 million endowment for the university, to follow suit. The foundation’s mission includes managing its investments to benefit UH, the people of Hawai‘i and future generations.

Time to act is now

If we make no effort to curb the current trajectory of climate change, Hawai‘i’s younger citizens will live in a world severely damaged by greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate research is among the best research at UH. It makes no sense to warn ourselves of a degraded future yet not acknowledge it with appropriate action.

In June, Norway committed to divesting its $890 billion pension fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, from companies deriving 30 percent or more of their business from mining or burning coal. In March, the White House promised that within 10 years the U.S. would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent from 2005 levels. This followed China’s pledge that its emissions would peak by 2030. No longer is tackling climate change an issue for the future. The world’s most powerful and wealthy nations are making swift commitments to shun a future dependent on fossil fuels. These decisions do not come too soon.

In perhaps the world’s least sexy top 10 list, the ten hottest days have all been since 1997, and the 10 hottest years have been since 1998.

However, even climate scientists were surprised when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the latest data: 2014 was the hottest year on record. This new record is astounding because 2014 was an El Niño neutral year.

El Niño weather patterns can push conditions to extremes and have been used by climate deniers to account for fluctuations and rises in ocean temperatures. That 2014 is the warmest year on record in an El Niño neutral year leaves no room for spurious rationalizations.

Hawai‘i’s vulnerability

The Hawaiian Islands are especially susceptible to climate change. Our location in the middle of the Pacific means sea level rise will impact the entire perimeter of the state and all its coastal developments and living areas.

Globally, as temperatures rise, species migrate to higher latitudes or away from the equator to seek appropriate habitat. In Hawai‘i, they can at best move somewhat uphill and inland until their habitat disappears. Not many things can live on the steep Pali cliffs.

Hawai‘i holds the dubious distinction of being the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.” With only 0.2% of the land area of the U.S., it is home to 434 of its 1209 endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

All eyes will be on our commitment to address climate change next year during the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Held every four years, this conference brings world leaders from over 1,300 government and non-governmental organizations. They will converge upon Honolulu with the goal of developing solutions to global environmental problems.

Hawai‘i has begun its journey to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. UH is the intellectual nucleus of the state and a vital part of that solution. The state legislature will pursue the divestment of its Employees’ Retirement System in the upcoming session, as Rep. Chris Lee has announced he would introduce the relevant bill next year.

UH Foundation supports innovation and gives us confidence in future generations. It has the power to brighten Hawai‘i and enable progressive leadership. By divesting and moving the endowment to sustainable investments, the foundation would ensure a more secure future for students and generations to come.