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article spread including headshot of Matt Gonser and community volunteers

Q & A with Matthew Gonser

by Cindy Knapman and Kanesa Seraphin

Matthew Gonser, former extension faculty with the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program, was recently appointed as the chief resilience officer and executive director of the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. He took the time to share his thoughts and vision for the office, and how it is fostering connectivity and collaboration to turn community visions into action.

Can you tell me about the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, and how it came about?
The office was created by the voters of this island. Every 10 years there is a process to revisit and amend the City’s charter, which in essence is our constitution for how we operate and function. At that point in time the voters overwhelmingly elected to establish the office, which is a testament to the people of this place and their understanding and comprehension of the challenges that are in front of us. They live in these places and have observed the changes. They understood that we had a moment and an opportunity to provide some dedicated attention and resources to this really big and broad topic of climate change, sustainability, and resiliency.

Are there initiatives that you are most excited about?
One of the most pressing items is the Climate Action Plan. It is the City’s first ever. Though it sets the stage for carbon neutrality by 2045, this 2020-2025 Climate Action Plan is by design focused on the near-term, with a punch list of actions to accelerate decarbonization. The climate adaptation strategy, or Climate Ready O‘ahu, is one of the biggest opportunities to get departments aligned, supported by the administration’s priorities on climate change adaptation, and turning community visions and commitments into action.

What are your vision and goals for this office?
I think what’s more important is that we are already supported by existing community visions that have been sourced through the development of the City’s O‘ahu Resilience Strategy and the Climate Action Plan. Through Climate Ready O‘ahu, communities are envisioning what the year 2050 looks like in the face of climate change. For example, what local, community-based solutions addressing the impacts of climate change do you envision for the future? What does your day look like in the future because we are taking climate adaptation measures in 2021 and beyond?

Can you talk about the things that are going to be easiest to do and have the most beneficial outcomes?
One of the other great opportunities right now is this concept of “One Water.” This is a framework for resource and financial efficiencies across all the cycles of water that a City manages, such as wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater. For the City, these streams are managed by three different agencies. What matters is how we potentially share resources, do projects in concert with each other, find ways to make sure that we are only using potable water for potable needs, etc.
Additionally, it’s important to focus on personal well-being, relationships, and taking care of place, which then anchors people more effectively in their community. Itʼs really about empowerment. What are those opportunities to get people connected with their place, to think about decisions that led to the condition that you see today, and then what are the measures that we can support to manage community and environmental change through time?

We know Hawai‘i is a unique place geographically and geologically. What are the things that make resiliency unique to Hawai‘i, and what are things that we can learn from other places and import to help make our job easier?
Indigenous traditional land management is one of the most unique and really one of the most critical things that we can do in many places across O‘ahu. We know that things like complete mauka to makai land management is not always possible in a lot of the contemporary settings, but in some more intact watersheds or biocultural settings we have so much to restore and learn and feel empowered by. And we carry forward those relationships of water, flora, and fauna in neighborhoods, and support environmentalism right outside our doors.

Are there individual or collective actions that people can get involved with to make a difference?
I would encourage everyone to become a volunteer, some form of community scientist. Just get outside, and experience, and make your own observations, because oftentimes that is one of the biggest motivations. Itʼs reminding ourselves of all the good that’s out there. Whether itʼs how we bring green stormwater infrastructure to better manage rainfall, how we beautify a community with trees and shade, how we make a safer environment for kids to walk to school, for a kūpuna to get off the bus to go to the grocery store, all these things have grave consequences for health and enjoyment. The more we have our own personal experiences, the better informed we are to actually discuss the steps to make improvements.


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