2016’s finest hour for the environment

And now for something completely different: a feel-good enviro story.

Buried in all the doom and gloom of 2016 year-end summaries is one undeniable success story — U.S. President Barack Obama’s unilateral decision in August to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

I’m filing this post from the Kapaa coast of Kauai, Hawaii’s oldest island, geologically speaking, and one of its least visited, owing to a reputation for rain and a quirk of geography that placed it on the “wrong” side of the Hawaiian chain, alone to the northwest of Honolulu and Oahu.

Coincidentally, Obama is in Honolulu right now, meeting Shinzö Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, at the site of the USS Arizona Memorial, the spiritual and literal memorial to the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Obama is taking a break in Hawaii with his family , where he grew up. It’s an annual tradition for the Obama family, but it will be his last Christmas as U.S. president.

The ocean reserve he established in August is twice the size of Texas. It sprawls across the Pacific to the northwest of Kauai, this very island, and the legal protection language has been written in such a way that — perhaps — not even “In Trump We Trust” and Trump’s incoming cabinet of climate deniers will be able to dismantle it.

Hawaii is firmly Democrat, in any event, thanks in no small part to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent — there’s that connection, again — who represented the state of Hawaii from 1963 to 2012. Inouye fought in the Second World War as part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. While in combat, he lost his right arm to a grenade. He didn’t let it end there. Upon his return to civilian life in Hawaii, he earned a law degree and was elected to Hawaii's territorial House of Representatives in 1953, and to the territorial Senate in 1957.

Obama himself grew up in Hawaii, and always felt a strong attachment for the sea and environmental protection. Growing up in Hawaii, he could scarcely know he would one day be in a position to actually do something about it. Last August, though, he did exactly that.

The Pacific reserve is a 583,000 square mile “no-take” zone that effectively quadruples a pre-existing marine reserve.

It’s important because, as climate change wreaks havoc with the jet stream, causing erratic bulges and shifts in weather patterns that can result in sudden, unexpected deep freezes in southern U.S. states and southern Europe, followed by unseasonal warming periods and an unpredictable wave of floods intermingled with droughts, the equatorial Pacific is one of the world’s few remaining potentially stabilizing influences.

The equatorial Pacific is home, too, to some of the sea’s most critically endangered — and iconic — species, from Hawaiian monk seals to blue whales and numerous species of sea turtles.

Hawaii itself is ironically home to one of the world’s most serious mass extinctions: rats, mongooses and mynah birds imported by visiting whalers and other seafarers of the 19th century wiped out many of Hawaii’s indigenous bird species — and yet, spread on remote atolls scattered across the western equatorial and southern Pacific, indigenous, one-of-a-kind seabirds still cling to a precarious existence, far from human interference, despite 21st-century development and an ever-expanding world population.

And while the Arctic ice blackens and melts, and sea levels rise ominously in various corners of the globe, the central Pacific has remained relatively unaffected. So far.

©Alex Strachan 2016

©Alex Strachan 2016

The most encouraging thing about being on Kauai — quite apart from the proximity of the new marine reserve — is the seemingly fierce determination of the local people who live here to protect the oceans and environment at all costs. The feeling is intense, and palpable, from state and county officials all the way down to local streetstand sellers and working class Hawaiian-born families whose idea of a Christmas get-together is a frolic in the surf followed by a beach picnic — or, for the older, more actively inclined, a hike into some of the world’s oldest known jungles, and along vine-choked sea cliffs that rise 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) above the sea in some places.

Obama’s decree was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, but it has the potential to be a lot more meaningful than that.

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument — the reserve’s official handle — is unlikely to become a household name, now or ever.

The reserve is important, though, because it contains many of the world’s northernmost species considered most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. According to a National Geographic survey, these waters are believed to be home to some 7,000 species in all, including sea creatures believed to have lived for more than 4,000 years. A quarter of all living creatures in the reserve are found nowhere else on the planet, including the white ghost octopus and the Laysian albatross.

The marine reserve has not proved popular with everyone. Local fishermen note that they’re being asked to sacrifice their day-to-day livelihood for the long-term benefit of humanity as a whole. Ironically, despite the bounty and proximity of fishing resources, Hawaiian fishermen say it’s becoming increasingly difficult — impossible even — to earn a decent living from a centuries-old tradition.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a biograpphy of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, told National Geographic that, on one level, he was not surprised Obama did what he did. Presidents facing their final weeks in office often think about their legacy, Brinkley said. “It’s no longer about ‘what I can get in the last year.’ It’s about the long term view.” The very definition, in other words, of conservation.