The Maui fires: a wake-up call for the White House on climate change?

By Dan Bavister

In 1779 Captain James Cook, a British explorer, made landfall at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai’i Island, the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Cook’s arrival happened to coincide with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian god Lono, and the form of Cook’s ship, HMS Resolution, or more specifically the mast formation, sails and rigging, resembled certain significant artefacts that formed part of the season of worship. 

When they first beheld this fabled vessel, some Hawaiians took this strange, pale-skinned captain from another land to be a god of their ancient mythology, treating Cook as an incarnation of Lono. The islanders were charmed by Cook, hopeful of the perceived peace and riches that he could bring; Cook would go on to desecrate local burial grounds in order to retrieve wood to repair his ship, finally resorting to the attempted kidnapping and ransom of the Hawaiian king, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. 

The history of Hawaii is a painful one, of promises made and then forgotten – a string of paradisical, pearl-like islands in the North Pacific haunted by a darkly troubled past. Cook’s arrival spelt the beginning of a period of British colonial rule, either directly or by proxy through a network of exploitative industrialists and corporations. Hawaii would then be colonised by the United States, an empire in all but name, which first annexed the islands in 1898, before granting it U.S. statehood in 1959. After this, there came a boom in tourism in Hawaii, at the expense of the gradual erosion of the local culture and customs, and damage to local habitats. 

Just as Cook promised so much in the hearts of Hawaiians only to lead to their colonisation by European peoples, Biden could end up just being another equally unsubstantial talisman, promising much but delivering little and potentially taking much away

Recently, the Hawaiian island of Maui has been ravaged by wildfires, caused by climate change brought about by the exploitation of the natural world enacted largely in Europe and the United States. The historic town of Lahaina in Maui was engulfed in flame, the fires searing through tourist condos and historic burial sites alike, reducing the colourful town to a patchwork of gray and black ash. The fires have cast thousands from their homes, buffeting the island and its fragile ecosystems, with the wildfires taking an especially toxic toll on marine ecology by eviscerating coral reefs and the delicate coastal ecosystems that surround the seaside town of Lahaina and elsewhere.

There was hope for tangible change in climate policy during the presidency of Barack Obama, himself a son of Hawaii who was born and grew up there. Obama was instrumental in negotiating the Paris Climate Accords of 2015. Then came the Trump presidency and back-pedalling of climate commitments, with Trump announcing he would pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, which even China and North Korea were signatories to. Joe Biden, upon becoming president on 20th January 2021, rejoined the agreement on his first day in office.

However, just as Cook promised so much in the hearts of Hawaiians only to lead to their colonisation by European peoples, Biden could end up just being another equally unsubstantial talisman, promising much but delivering little and potentially taking much away. Even as Biden promises to break from his predecessor on climate change policy, he continues to grant oil and gas contracts to major corporations, in the hope it will spark economic enhancement and more jobs for the U.S., whilst in the U.K. Rishi Sunak has just announced another 100 licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration.

It is time for Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous peoples across the world, to finally have their voices heard and for policies to be created that protect them from the West’s latest scourge

For far too long have Hawaiians been forced or tricked into following the ill-informed creeds of Westerners. From Cook and the British, to the Americans and now a Western-manufactured climate catastrophe, they have suffered at others’ hands, whether directly or indirectly. Now is the time for the wrongs of the past to be righted, for the West to finally recognise it has presided over centuries of exploitation not just of Indigenous peoples but of the natural world and our climate, and to finally set the balance right through a just transition away from fossil fuels towards green energy and sustainable development. 

It is time for Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous peoples across the world, to finally have their voices heard and for policies to be created that protect them from the West’s latest scourge – climate change annihilation. Indeed, it has been imprudent for us not to listen to them in the past, and now, more than ever before, we cannot afford to not heed their warnings of a dark chain of events that may yet spell disastrous consequences for us all.

Image credits: State Farm via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “The Maui fires: a wake-up call for the White House on climate change?

  • Great article! good historical view and challenging comparison

    Reply
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