A Fine Balance: Using Our Collective Power for Good in Hawai‘i

The Ko’oloa’ula is an endangered plant in the mallow family that grows on Maui and many other islands in Hawai'i. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Ko’oloa’ula is an endangered plant in the mallow family that grows on Maui and many other islands in Hawai'i. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo of Gary Langham

As AAG prepares for our 2024 annual meeting, I have talked with and worked beside AAG thought leaders and Kānaka representatives, seeking the greatest possible benefit to Hawaiians and Hawai‘i. AAG President Rebecca Lave has described the recommendations and actions from these discussions in her July and August articles, as well as this month’s. Let me add my thoughts and perspectives.

A recent article from The Guardian on the devastating fires on Maui brought home the urgency and complexity of what we are trying to accomplish. Climate change has already plagued the islands for decades. Now, in the wake of the fire, so much more has been lost, from the lives lost and missing to the immense cultural treasures and shared community memories of places that are now gone. Businesses and livelihoods are lost and will take months and years to rebuild if they can return. To add insult to injury, in Lahaina, a former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom that burnt to the ground, predatory land speculators are already harassing local property owners, aiming to capitalize on the destruction. Maui is recovering from COVID-19 and depends on tourism for its economy, with about 75% of its workforce reliant upon it. The question of whether, when, and how to accept visitors is uppermost in many Mauians’ minds: “For so many people to face economic uncertainty or challenges, on top of those who have lost everything in the fire – it compounds the issues and prolongs the recovery,” said T Ilihia Gionson, a public affairs officer for the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. “That is the risk of discouraging travel to Hawaii generally. It’s a fine balance.”

“Going forward, I don’t know if it’s less tourism, but I think more mindful tourism,” Trisha Kehaulani Watson of ʻĀina Momona told The Guardian. “We have to think about enhancing and evolving the visitor experience to be one that invites people who can contribute to Hawaii, as opposed to just taking from us.” [To aid Maui, see our resources here.]

What is happening now in Maui reinforces what is at stake in our effort to live up to our best when visiting Honolulu. We must find ways to leverage our members’ collective talents and AAG’s resources to support the lives of the people living where we will convene. We also must provide attendance choices supporting individual decisions to join us in person, virtually, or at one of the regional nodes. We must educate our members about Hawaiian history, culture, and current issues in a discursive, mutual way, not extractive. Even as we look to lighten our carbon footprint, we must be mindful of our whole footprint and tread with care.

Our Work to Be Good Guests in Honolulu

AAG met in January for in-depth discussions with Kānaka people, geographers, and community members. Their feedback made us realize the issue was not whether we would come to Honolulu but how. They emphasized the need for reciprocity and mindfulness of where we were and what we could bring to replenish it. The AAG immediately agreed to implement all the recommendations suggested by the Kānaka community. For example, I am working with our engagement leader, Neil Hannahs, to develop webinars to help attendees learn more about these themes in the run-up to the annual meeting.  Attend one of AAG’s educational webinars on Hawai‘i

We are now working to implement the other recommendations from these conversations. Kānaka geographers and local people with a range of knowledge are being engaged in developing themes for the annual meeting that center on their issues and concerns, such as US militarism, food sovereignty, and colonial legacies. Field trips and events will be paired with these themes to create meaningful experiences on the Island. AAG will also work with interested specialty groups to select Hawaiian keynote speakers and foreground Kānaka themes. Kānaka Maoli and other Pacific Basin Indigenous groups receive free registration, and AAG will provide free vendor space and publicity for local Kānaka-owned businesses.

It is important to note that one of our most important potential contributions to the meeting is also the most contested and potentially challenging to manage: the presence of thousands of geographers whose work is to understand space and place and respond to the most critical issues of the day. Bringing them into learning and collaborating with Hawaiian community leaders, academics, and others could be one of the great legacies of the 2024 meeting – if we act with care and visit with mindfulness.

Reducing Our Overall Climate Change Impact

In late 2021, AAG asked members what actions they wished AAG to take to reduce climate change impacts. Here is what you said:

Bar chart taken from an AAG survey on climate showing actions members would like to see AAG take, the top of which is taking a role in policy and advocacy for climate action.
This bar chart depicts results from a survey of AAG members. Among the 93% who urged AAG to take leadership on climate change, the top suggestion was that AAG take a role in policy and advocacy for climate action.
Taking Responsibility: AAG Acts on Climate Change


Since then, AAG has made significant strides across all of these categories. AAG continues to engage in policy and advocacy, from supporting member attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) to promoting our members’ authorship of key elements of global climate change assessment; from the focus on Climate and Society as our inaugural theme for the new Elevate the Discipline media and advocacy training program for geographers, to actions at key flexion points in the public discourse, including sign-on letters and statements calling on the United States to address climate change).

AAG has also now completely divested from fossil fuels. We continue to work on reducing carbon emissions associated with travel to meetings (virtual options, nodes). We reduced the emissions at our headquarters and day-to-day by moving to a LEED Gold building and adopting a hybrid-plus-remote workweek. In short, we’ve made excellent progress.

The AAG Annual Meeting in Denver had a 36% reduction in carbon emissions, compared to the 2010 baseline from our report.

Reducing our emissions from travel to meetings is related to the AAG pledge to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, relative to our 2010 meeting. To measure this, we adopted a method to estimate carbon from travel. Our first meeting since developing the approach was in Denver. Denver had a 36% reduction compared to the 2010 baseline (6663 vs. 10,414 tCO2) and a 58% reduction compared to our 2015-2019 average (16,244 tCO2). Some of this reduction was due to changes in in-person attendance, but also from new options like virtual participation and nodes. Our analysis showed that attendees further from Denver were more likely to attend a node or attend virtually. All this suggests that we are on track to meet our 2030 goals. Meeting our net-zero goals by 2050 will require new approaches.

Leveraging Institutional Power

In August, we met with the AAG Environment and Energy Specialty Group (EESG) to consider options for addressing the 2024 meeting’s carbon footprint. We are working with them and the Climate Task Force on this issue.

Those meetings reinforced the importance of the hybrid meeting and regional attendance nodes, not only to reduce the carbon burden but also for preserving our members’ ability to choose the kind of meeting they wish to attend. Meeting with EESG also reminded me of our ability and responsibility to act on our collective buying power with our hotels and other vendors. For example, hotels are slowly starting to adopt net-zero standards. These efforts should be evaluated carefully but also supported and championed. Imagine this: if AAG and similar academic societies used its collective economic influence to accelerate the adoption of net-zero buildings at all our meeting venues, how much more carbon would be saved compared to anything we could do as individuals.

As we work toward an AAG Annual Meeting that can be truly responsive and respectful of the place and people hosting us, I also think about power, its uses, and its proportions. I think about what I can accomplish on behalf of our membership that I cannot accomplish as an individual. I felt helpless when I saw the devastating wildfires on Maui in mid-August in a summer of extreme heat, fires, and floods worldwide. Nevertheless, I reflect on my ability to bring some change at scale on behalf of AAG to transform how we convene and channel our collective power for the greater good.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0138

Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.