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Maxine Burkett


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POSTED: Friday, April 24, 2009

Legal scholar Maxine Burkett has a deep interest in “;climate justice,”; highlighting the disproportionate impact of global warming on vulnerable coastal communities.

Burkett, 32, joined the University of Hawaii's law school in January as an associate professor and is the inaugural director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy.

The center, known as ICAP, is a partnership among several UH schools that aims to lead the way on climate change adaptation, law, policy and planning for Hawaii and other islands in the Pacific and beyond. The goal is to provide research and real-world solutions to the public and private sectors, assuring a sustainable future.

Burkett, who graduated from the University of California-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 2002, shared her vision during Earth Week.

Question: What makes a community vulnerable? Is it simply geography, as in Hawaii's case of being an island state in a rising sea, or are there other factors?

Answer: Geography is important — Hawaii and other island communities are obviously more vulnerable to rising seas, hurricanes, and because we are an island in the tropics we face unpredictable rainfall changes and weather events. But, there are important decisions made on a daily basis that make Hawaii even more vulnerable than we should be. Where do we build our homes? How far back from the ocean are our roads? Have we preserved our reservoir systems to capture large rains? And finally, do we have a strong disaster response network in place? A good example of this is Hurricane Katrina. The systems in place at all levels of government were not resilient enough to ensure a sound response to the hazard.

Q: What are some of the potential impacts in Hawaii?

A: Islands, generally, will likely have to deal with 3 feet of sea level rise in this century, our ocean becoming more acidic (which means a tougher time for coral reefs and nearshore fish), changes in rainfall patterns that will likely include more droughts but also more big rains (like the one in 2006 when it rained for 40 days and nights), and saltwater seeping into our fresh water table that we drink from.

Q: What is ICAP's mission?

A: Our mission is to increase the ability of small islands to adapt to climate change by providing policy and infrastructure solutions based on sound science. Our community-based adaptation models will also rely on indigenous environmental knowledge — local wisdom and culture ... For instance, if we're rebuilding a pier or dock we want to be sure we're spending our tax dollars on something that will withstand expected sea level rise in the design, but also accommodate traditional community uses.

Q: In terms of attaining “;climate justice,”; what is the best approach? Lawsuits?

A: Climate justice is concerned with the heavy, and disproportionate, burden climate change is placing on already vulnerable communities, the vast majority of whom have done little to contribute to the problem.

First, we need to acknowledge and share the stories of communities that will literally be wiped off of the map. Once we frame the issues around the “;first and worst”; hit — including island communities like Hawaii, then we might be able to have a better focus on the human impact rather than the economic or political impacts of taking action to reduce our carbon footprint. Lawsuits can serve as an important symbol, and first step, by highlighting the discussion of who should bear the burden of reducing emissions and how we might repair individuals and communities through, among other things, building capacity to adapt ...

...Q: What do you say to critics who insist that the issue of global warming has become a policy and political issue prematurely? That scientists remain uncertain about the true impacts, and that actions are being taken based on an unlikely worst-case scenario?

A: The uncertainty amongst the vast majority of the scientists is how bad global warming will be, not whether it's happening. It's very real, particularly for small island states that are on the front lines. Facing the possibility of low-lying islands being over-topped and homes uninhabitable within decades makes this a very present-tense concern. If you know that your children cannot live their lives on the island that has been yours for generations, global warming is an issue that has been dangerously delayed. All coastal communities, even those with higher ground, will be facing a significant challenge as most people live within miles of the coast and most of the economic activity of these communities happen, again, along coastlines.

Q: How has moving to Hawaii affected your outlook?

A: I was actually born in Jamaica and much of my family still lives on the island, so islands and climate change are close to my heart. Hawaii does face the same threats as an island, but Hawaii has so many more resources to prepare itself with the potential for federal funding and a top-notch university providing cutting edge research on climate issues. It's fully up to us to decide how prepared we'd like to be. Islands like Jamaica don't have the same kind of flexibility or choice ... yet they must prepare. Jamaicans have a carbon footprint that is minuscule compared to the U.S. and Hawaii citizens. The fact that they are getting hit first by warmer seas, dying reefs and longer and more intense hurricanes, is a tragic irony. Much of my academic work argues that there should be significant transfers of technology and funding for adaptation projects from polluters like the U.S. as the ethically correct thing to do. One thing that Hawaii can do is provide a model for other islands and share the wisdom gained by preparing our own islands for inevitable changes.