- Interview by
- Lucy Dean Stockton
This month, deadly wildfires have ravaged Hawaii, killing over a hundred people, and hundreds are still missing. The fires were centered on the island of Maui, where they destroyed much of the historic city of Lahaina.
The fires are typical of the increasingly extreme weather events being driven by climate change. But climate is only part of the story — the long history of business-driven destruction of Maui’s historic wetlands and public utilities’ refusal to invest in safe energy infrastructure is also to blame. The Lever’s news editor, Lucy Dean Stockton, spoke with Kaniela Ing, a former Hawaii state representative and now national director of the Green New Deal Network, about how capitalists have destroyed Hawaii’s natural environment from the early twentieth century on, helping fuel the disastrous wildfires we’re seeing now.
This wildfire isn’t just a story about climate change — it’s also a story about colonialism and capitalism. Would you mind telling us a little bit about Hawaii’s history and how we’ve arrived at this point?
Hawaii wasn’t always a state; many folks don’t consider it a state. The United States itself has admitted, in the apology resolution in 1992, that [Hawaii’s pre-US government] was illegally overthrown.
Our history is deeply rooted in the town of Lahaina. Before we were a state, before we were a territory, when we were the Kingdom of Hawaii, it was our capital. It wasn’t the tinderbox that it is now; it was a lush wetland.
At the turn of the twentieth century, sugar barons, far-right American businessmen, and oligarchs diverted water illicitly from Lahaina to irrigate the land they stole for monocrops, for sugar. What was once a place of bounty — of the world’s earliest aquaculture systems, which sustained us — once the water was taken away, became a dry and dangerous place for disasters like these.
The descendants of the sugar barons continue to have oligarchical control in some ways over our economy and government — Alexander & Baldwin. Those are two of the original “Big Five” missionary families, from centuries ago. Today it’s the largest corporation, landowner, and political donor, or among the top donors, on Maui. So it persists: they get vast profits off the diverting of our resources and the control of our politicians.
There is what many people liken to a new form of neocolonialism in Hawaii’s tourism industry. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like, and how it’s changed the island?
As they diverted water away from kalo farmers and family farmers, they built subdivisions for new residents moving into Maui. They build hotels, and then they say, “We can’t give you water back because this community relies on it,” so they pit you against them — and “we can’t give you water back because this hotel and therefore all the workers and the union that represents those workers would’’t appreciate that.”
So you’re stuck in this bind where you’re pitted against other members of the community. In tourism, in particular, time and time again, every time Hawaii seems to make national news and gets this spate of media, it’s around crises like these. Last time I had to make the rounds of the circuit was when, in up-country Maui where I’m from, people were getting charged $500 for watering their lawns during a drought while the hotels continued to have their waterslides and fountains or pools filled.
They’re these gross symbols of second-class citizenry, where the people who play here and see Hawaii as their playground are treated better by our government that we fund than the citizens of Hawaii. That plays out time and time again in different ways.
You said that people aren’t able to water their lawns. Can you talk a little bit about how the ecology of the area has changed?
Lahaina was once a lush wetland with sprawling Loko I’a fish ponds, some of the earliest systems of aquaculture, where you could take a boat around the famous Waiola Church — which unfortunately burned down. That water was diverted for hotels and monocrops by the original colonizers, and now our economy — which is held up by the pillars of tourism and land speculation — can only function with the diverted water. So you’re caught in this bind.
But both tourism and real estate or land speculation are paradoxical in their nature. They rely on preserving Maui’s natural beauty and resources, but also developing and destroying them. It’s inherently unsustainable.
And as much as politicians like to talk about diversifying our economy, their actions speak otherwise. The state government is still subsidizing the marketing budgets for multinational hotel conglomerates in the form of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. In order for a new industry to pop up in this capitalist system, something needs to sunset. Through our subsidies, we’re really picking winners and losers. When we choose to subsidize tourism, we all lose.
You’ve mentioned how the landscape has changed, but there’s also been a lot of scrutiny on Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the privately owned utility company that provides electricity for 95 percent of the state. State lawmakers and county officials have been raising the alarm for years that HECO desperately needs to update its infrastructure to adapt to these increasingly extreme weather events. But there’s been really slow movement from the utility company.
Two major shareholders of HECO are the private equity company Vanguard and the largest asset manager in the world, BlackRock. Can you talk a bit about this infrastructure and how it contributed to the fires?
No one’s rooting for HECO to collapse, because it’s seen as a very rooted local company. My grandpa worked there as a dispatcher for forty-five years, and we’re a working-class family. My mom was forced to sell our house on Maui. We got pushed out without a fire — the fire just accelerates these injustices. So there’s no wealth in our family aside from HECO stock that my grandma has in her retirement account.
It’s sad, but at the same time, folks need to realize, first, that the colonial history of HECO, but also the modern version of HECO, has a local veneer. The company will hire the most rooted community members to do its PR and community relations, but its shareholders tend to be out of state, with very little stake or even interest in our islands.
That’s another conundrum that we’re facing now. When I was a state legislator, for example, it was clear that HECO’s model of buying or generating and selling power was unsustainable, and it disincentivized the clean energy transition. If it were to just operate as a grid management system and allowed the proliferation of rooftop solar, for example, we would be much further on our global energy goals.
But the company ended net metering, and it tried to monopolize the solar and wind industry. And once the coal plant shut down on Oahu, just recently, it ran ads using ratepayer money to blame renewables for rising costs. Our electric bills right now are around $600 [a month].
Which, I think, is the highest in the country — is that right?
By far, sometimes two or three times higher than the second-place rate. And you’d be hard-pressed to find another county with a $1.4 million median housing price without underground power lines, let alone with ill-maintained power lines, to the point where seventy-mile-per-hour winds would blow them over.
That was the case with Lahaina. On the one hand, you’ll see HECO doing a shareholder meeting with the private equity firms talking about record profits; on the other hand, we’re paying $600 a month with Third World infrastructure — another vestige of our colonial past. If the company had invested in our infrastructure like it should have, given how much we pay, the fire would have never spread the way it did.
And they’ve known as early as 2019 that fire was an increasing risk on Maui and across all the islands. HECO said that it’s spent hundreds of millions on equipment replacement and vegetation management, but it hasn’t even put lines underground. Is that right?
Yeah. This isn’t just mismanagement, like bad decisions that were made. These are the same incentives that private utilities face everywhere, where it makes more sense to try to get subsidies to build brand-new facilities. The bigger the project, the better it is for shareholders, rather than fixing existing infrastructure.
It’s a systemic problem. Executives should be held accountable, but you get rid of one CEO, and the next one will come in and do the same thing. There needs to be demand from the people for systems change.
This all comes at the same time that HECO is not investing in renewable infrastructure, which is obviously exacerbating climate change in Hawaii. I’d like to turn to climate change and what Hawaii State is doing within the legal system to fight back against the fossil fuel industry.
The state is very much on the forefront of taking legal action against Big Oil. In 2022, a group of fourteen Hawaiian youth sued the Hawaiian Department of Transportation over its greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2020, both the Honolulu government and Maui County sued a number of oil companies, including Exxon, Shell, and Chevron.
Could you tell me a little bit more about these lawsuits, the status of Maui’s lawsuit, and how you think these fires may impact the case?
Back in 2018, 2019, I was doing some consultant work on this project of trying to get Maui and Oahu county governments to sue Big Oil for the climate disasters that it caused. I’m encouraged to see that it’s going through the system and being taken up by the state supreme court.
We could use as much vocal support for these lawsuits as possible. I know some politicians don’t want to involve themselves in the judicial system — as if there’s a firewall, as if they haven’t seen how the Supreme Court of the United States operates. But now is the time, if you feel any conviction around a livable planet — not just for our kids, but right now — it’s time to speak up.
Could you tell me about the youth lawsuits and how they mirror the recent victory in Montana, or the federal lawsuit currently happening?
It’s remarkable to see — the idea that there’s these lawsuits happening, not just at the federal level, but across different states in a concerted national effort is important. But I will say that, especially coming from Hawaii, where we won a lot of monumental legal battles, including the public trust doctrine that mandates that waterways be kept public — it simply isn’t enough.
There’s no way to skirt around it. In the long run, we’re not going to be able to have the same scale and volume of expertise and of lawyers that these corporations have. So while lawsuits are a great tactic, they’re only part of a broader strategy of movement building. Without continued support of a base of impacted people organizing themselves and activists and media shifting the broader narrative and changing the political common sense of the populace, these lawsuits will be rather useless.
Right. It’s essential to build that climate-friendly legal infrastructure, but we also need to be operating on other levers of power and maybe even changing economic incentives.
You’re the national director of the Green New Deal Network (GNDN), a coalition of fourteen different organizations. Can you tell us about the work you do there?
The Green New Deal is something I ran on in 2018. At that time, it was like, if you’re into climate, the boldest thing you can do is support a carbon tax, and it seemed to lack political imagination. It didn’t have that inspirational quality — something positive to shoot for.
People were building their platforms around banning bags and paper straws and things that people have to give up. What was needed at that moment, I thought, was a vision of: What can we get? What better world exists on the other side of the clean energy transition?
Sunrise Movement, youth climate strikes — it just blew up after the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A bunch of really influential progressive groups, including labor, frontline groups, indigenous groups, big greens: everyone was like, can we put aside our differences and consolidate our power around the climate agenda?
So we formed the GNDN. I was with People’s Action at the time. We were able to resource similar coalitions across twenty-three states and figure out where the levers of power were in the election year and kind of drive the agenda, once President Joe Biden was elected, of what Build Back Better would look like.
We set a stake in the ground of a trillion dollars a year in investments that centered climate care, jobs, and justice. Of course, if you don’t have 100 percent of the power, you won’t win 100 percent of your demands, but we made sure we focused on the needs of the most impacted. Ultimately, it resulted in the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
That bill isn’t perfect by any means. There are harms in that bill that will hurt our communities, so we’ve been focusing on just implementation of the law, maximizing the goods, minimizing the harms, and also introducing various Green New Deal bills and making sure there’s public support behind them.
Unfortunately, a lot of the work that we’re doing now and we’ll be doing in the future is going to be around rebuilding efforts for climate disasters. So it’s heavy. I think the one thing that we should continue to call for is that President Biden needs to declare a climate emergency. And ending fossil fuels means denying permits, and then investing at least a trillion dollars a year moving forward.
So far, no candidate running for president on either side, including Democrats, has been campaigning on anything other than what they’ve already done on climate, and that’s not enough. Three degrees, four degrees of warming is still catastrophic. I used to talk about it in terms of my kids: Will they have clean air and clean water?
That’s not right. You can wake up tomorrow morning and your community can be flattened. Your church, your kid’s school, the grocery store you shop at could be reduced to ashes tomorrow. That’s the urgency we’re operating under, and anything less than investing a trillion a year and ending fossil fuels now is an insult to all the friends and family and neighbors that we lost in this fire a couple weeks ago.