Haunani Kane recognized as leader in climate, justice as Grist 50 “Fixer”

Haunani Kane, assistant professor in the SOEST Department of Earth Sciences, was honored as a leader in climate and justice by being recognized as a Grist 50 “Fixer”, an individual who is driving fresh solutions to the climate crisis and helping to pave the way for a greener, more just future. 

Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization, selected leaders who have found a unique way to apply their strengths, creativity, and time to tackling the biggest problem our planet faces. Referred to as “fixers”, these are “dynamic doers who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and dive headlong into building and championing better alternatives.”

In 2018, Kane became the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a PhD in geology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and now, she is studying sea level rise and island resiliency in Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands in an effort to protect land, communities, and culture. Her research combines coastal geology, reconstructions of past climate conditions, and the perspectives of a native islander to investigate how islands, reefs, and island people are impacted by changes in climate.

Growing up as a surfer and voyager on the windward side of O‘ahu, Kane saw firsthand how climate impacts like erosion threatened the places she loved. “It led me to have a lot of questions about what is going on, what is happening to my home,” she said.

That curiosity led her to pursue those questions in an academic setting. Kane’s dissertation focused on how islands in Micronesia and Samoa were influenced by a period of sea-level rise 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, which could offer lessons for present-day adaptations.

“I think right now is a really exciting time for many of us island people — because for many of us, we are the first islanders in our field,” Kane says. “We not only have the Western teachings of, say, how our climate systems work, but we also come into these spaces with the values of the places that we come from — the perspectives that have been shared over multiple generations.”

When she was a university student, none of her teachers were Hawaiian. She became a faculty member at the University of Hawai‘i in part because she wanted to teach other young people like herself.

Among other offerings, Kane teaches an online, asynchronous course, reaching students who may not be able to work within a conventional classroom setting and schedule. She’s also a lead scientist at the MEGA Lab, a Hawaiian nonprofit that aims to engage underserved communities in science and ocean conservation.

“As the world continues to rapidly change in the near future we will need to be creative in developing equitable solutions.  I believe the way to do that is by including communities, and their students into the process and allowing them to determine the solutions and vulnerabilities of their home. As scientists I see ourselves as resources to help facilitate this process.”

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