This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady. Katy Bullard, Talia Fox, and William Tyner contributed to the production of this story.
Evan is a co-founder of the Sunrise movement, a group of young people in the United States uniting to stop the climate crisis. This is his story:
"A year ago, I was back home for the holidays with my mom and we were walking on the beach like we used to when I was a little kid. I was holding my mom’s arm because she has trouble walking. It was my last day on the island before going back to D.C. and I was kind of beating myself up like, 'Why do I leave this place?' I didn’t want to leave my mom either. 'Why would I leave everything that I love?'
We were walking down this one stretch of beach and the beach just dropped off very sharply, like a three-foot drop, because of damage and the way it’s falling into the ocean. It was a vertical drop. As you look down the beach, there are these trees that are like roots sticking out across the sand, reaching into nothingness because they no longer have anything to root into. For me, looking out and seeing this very stark drop-off was an “aha” moment—this is why I have to leave, and this is why I do what I do.
I was born and raised in a small beach city called Kailua in Honolulu County on the island of O’ahu. It’s a small city of about 36,000 people. It’s a really, really special place. When I think about community, I think about where I grew up. It’s a place that’s safe. It’s a place where the neighbors know each other and families have been there for generations passing on homes to their children. I grew up a couple of football fields away in one direction from a giant mountain ridge, and a couple of blocks away in the other direction from the Pacific Ocean. When I get off the plane in O’ahu, just the feeling and the smell of the moisture of the air and all of the sudden I feel more at peace and more natural and where I belong. It’s this crazy, almost spiritual sensation. My body just feels more relaxed.
Growing up my family would go for walks on the beach. I was like a little kid, maybe five or eight years old, and I remember racing my puppy up and down the beach, and being afraid of the water, and getting wet, and running away from the waves. My parents were talking about whatever their adult things were and laughing at me and my sister running up and down those beaches.
In the mountains, my friends--Katherine and Will--and I would pretend to be Middle Earth warriors running through the woods. Our parents were both reading us Lord of the Rings at the time so we were really into this fantasy fiction Middle Earth universe. We tweaked everything in that universe a little bit to make it ours. We would come up with names for ourselves like Aragorn. I took his name and was like, 'I’m going to be Aarandyl.' Then we would find fabric and turn it into capes and make little swords. We would make up stories about hiding in bushes and running away from imaginary enemies. It was all sort of taking place right on this mountainside. They had this big stretching backyard that kind of ran into the mountains. Some people would come down off the mountains and get lost and end up in their backyard.
Where I’m from, we’re on the east side of the island, and it’s not very at risk for big hurricanes or anything like that. My specific neighborhood is more affluent. It’s been rated one of the best beaches in the world, so the property values are pretty high. Some houses used to have beaches in front of their house and now it’s just, like, water. My community is a frontline community to the climate crisis, but we’ve got it good compared to a lot of other places. It’s a relatively wealthy community and it’s a safe place. There are lots of places where the storming and the impacts are much more glaring and oppressive and complicated. Part of my motivation for the work that I do is because I had a really amazing childhood and experienced so much joy. I want to live in a world where people can have those types of experiences. It’s hard to see the place that I love disappear and have pieces of our culture stripped away.
My favorite place on the island is actually off the island. There are two very small islands off the coast where I live. They’re called Nā Mokulua or the Mokuluas or the Mokes. It basically means “the two mountains.” They’re these two islands that you can swim out to or paddle out to or take a boat out to, right off the coast of the island. I see them every day waking up, when I’m paddling on the ocean, or when I’m coming back home into my neighborhood. When I see those when I’m driving through the mountains or turning around a bend, I know that it’s my home. Actually going out and being on them, I can look at the island and see my entire community, the entire island where my community exists.
Between the two islands is where my dad’s ashes were spread. My dad passed away six and a half years ago. He was a kite-surfer. It’s like more extreme windsurfing. You’re on a surfboard and you have this kite up in the air and you control the kite to go really fast and do tricks and things like that. One day, my dad and I were driving out of our neighborhood. He was taking me to school or the bus stop or who knows. We were just looking out the ocean as we came out of the neighborhood, and my dad was looking at me and said, 'when I die, I want my ashes to be spread between the islands by a kitesurfer doing an aerial.' And I said, 'okay.' When I finally move home, I have to teach myself how to kitesurf so I can keep my word.
Where I come from, climate change is 'slow violence.' Climate change is portrayed by the media as these big catastrophic moments, like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy. Where I come from, the change has been a lot more subtle but very, very real. Everyone knows that it’s happening. The plants are dying and that there hasn’t been a lot of rain over this five year stretch, and the beach doesn’t exist anymore, you know? For us, it’s less of those 'aha' moments, and more, 'this is our reality.' We are so connected to the land and to the ocean and to the natural world around us that it’s impossible to ignore what’s happening.
Many of the beaches that I grew up on and would race my dog on don’t exist anymore because of sea level rise and coastal erosion. The beaches now go straight up to people’s properties and to the sea walls, rather than being giant stretches of sand, and in many places, there are big piles of sandbags that are put out on a beach in front of properties to protect them from falling into the sea. For the most part, the city and county governments set sandbags to protect the property. In some cases, the private property owners fortify their own properties with sandbags. These sandbags are massive things: they’re probably like ten feet long, three feet wide. They’re all full of sand, really heavy bags of sand.
The beach in our community is the gathering point. As there is less and less beach, there are less and less places to gather, and there are less and less opportunities for community. Our beach gatherings are not any formal thing. It’s just the weekend and you go down to the beach and there’s Max or Tim or Kawika or Lindsey or Leilani. [Our beaches are eroding] at the same time as our community is being turned into a tourist attraction. In many ways, you welcome that, but, in other ways, it’s our home. We have a different way that we treat it and respect it versus the way that a visitor would. Things are a lot more cramped. So, maybe people from our community won’t even go to the beach anymore, maybe they’ll go somewhere else, or maybe they won’t go to the beach at all.
Most of my best friends, to this day, are people that, at one point or another, I paddled with in canoes. There’s an ancient Hawaiian sport that’s like outrigger canoe paddling. Since I was 11, I did this sport, and formed relationships through the ocean. Paddling is meditation for me. You can paddle on your own in a one-man canoe and that’s amazing because you get to be on your own in the ocean. There’s nothing like making it back to shore as the sun sets.
As a team sport, the way you go fast isn’t necessarily by one person giving it their all, it’s by being in synchronicity with all six people in the boat. It’s more important to be in harmony, having your blades entering and leaving the water at the same time, than it is for any one person to be pulling with their muscle. If just one person screws up the rhythm, it’ll ruin the momentum of the boat for everyone else.
There are all sorts of metaphors that you can draw out from that. I think in our capitalist society and Western society more broadly, we’re taught that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, it’s every man for themself and you need to go out and beat and achieve and that’s how you’re going to rise to the top. It just baffles me. If you really look into how human beings and other animals and other species interact, it’s much more cooperative and mutualistic. Every being is dependent on other beings and we all need to work together and find harmony even while recognizing that each of us are unique.
For example, in the canoe, different paddlers have different strengths. The person who sits in the front, he’s supposed to really set the pace. The person that is in number two is good at following the pace. The person who sits in the back is responsible for steering. And the people in the middle of the canoe are the strongest people. It’s not to say that we all have to be the same, but we all have to find out how we can work together. It’s not just figuring out how to become a more cooperative and collectivist society, but also doing this in harmony with nature in addition to being in harmony with fellow humans.
O’ahu is an imperfect place that has, to me, more potential than any place that I’ve ever experienced. It sits at the crossroads of Asia and the Americas. It’s talked about as the melting pot of the world. It holds the culture of the United States and everything that’s good and bad about that, and the cultures of so many other parts of the world and all the things that are good and bad about that. And, of course, it has its own indigenous culture as well. Right now, the two biggest industries on O’ahu are tourism and defense. I can’t think of anything that better represents its colonial history and its colonial present. Tourism is the extraction of culture and defense is literally the reason that Hawai`i is part of the United States.
At the same time, the two fastest growing industries are the renewable energy industry and the local agriculture industry. These are really drawing upon the ancient wisdom of the place and the Hawaiian people. Hawai`i is the first state to mandate 100% renewable energy by 2045. It is also a place where ethnicity and heritage are not ignored but are embraced across differences and shared with one another, rather than extracted or erased. All of these things are wrapped up in the idea that it’s a place that has a lot of promise because it sits at this crossroads between its ancient and indigenous and intuitive history that’s helping drive it forward into the future.
My advice for people interested in doing something about climate change is: learn the stories of how people are impacted. Let it be about people. That can be by learning about macro impacts on countries or it could be communities that will be more impacted, but also learn about the individual stories of the impacts because that’s what’s going to get you to understand the real complexity of this stuff. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
I would also say figure out what your own story is. Why do you care about this? You don’t have to go out and manufacture a scenario for yourself. But, what is it that you care about? Is it like, when you look into your baby nephew’s eyes, you think about the world he’s going to grow up in? Or, is it that you have been imbued with values of social justice, by your parents, and the understanding that you can go out and use your life towards making sure the United States lives up to its responsibility? Or is it that you love a place or a community that’s going to be impacted if we don’t act? Figure out what it is that gives you the most passion and the most meaning and purpose. Figure out how you can hold onto that as you go forward. Everyone has a story of why they want to get into climate change advocacy."
Kailua is located on O’ahu, Hawai`i’s third largest island. Known for its stunning beaches, Kailua’s reputation as a tourist attraction has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly as numerous visits by the Obama family drew increased attention to the town .
Though its position on the island protects it from more dramatic events like hurricanes, Kailua – like the rest of Hawai`i – is still deeply impacted by climate change. Rising sea levels have already increased erosion along beaches in Kailua. Around the state, this rise may pose dangers to water resources as saltwater may contaminate freshwater aquifers. Such rises also promise more flooding in the future, posing greater risks to infrastructure and ultimately threatening to shrink low-lying islands. Changing temperatures and rain patterns could put native plant and animal species at greater risk of takeover by invasive species. Warming seas are also threatening to bleach Hawaii’s iconic coral reefs . All these changes pose a dual threat to the state and its residents. As beaches erode and coral reefs bleach, the tourism industry – a critical part of Hawai`i's economy – could take a major hit. Even more importantly, such changes could threaten ways of life of life of many different groups of Hawai`i residents. Foods like taro, important to Pacific Islander communities, are threatened by drought, subsistence fishing could decline with coral reefs, and in the long-term, some people of Hawai`i may be forced to relocate to escape the physical and economic risks posed by climate change. Such migrations may make it difficult to maintain the culture and way of life that existed before relocation.
Given the growing danger posed by erosion and sea level rise, Kailua residents and people of Hawai`i. across the state have been proactive in attempting to prepare for and prevent climate change. For instance, in November 2016, Oahu voted to create the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency tasked with supporting sustainable stewardship of natural resources . Moreover, under a 2015 law, Hawai`i is now working to use 100% renewable energy by 2045, an expansion of a previous goal of seventy percent energy sustainability by 2030 .
 James Cave. “Is Kailua Hawaii’s Next Waikiki?” Huffington Post. 28 March 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/28/kailua-hawaii-waikiki-short-term-rentals_n_6882752.html>.
 “2014 National Climate Assessment.” US Global Change Research Program. 2014. <http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/regions/hawaii>.
 “Oahu Passes Climate Change Amendment.” Surfrider Foundation. 9 November 2016. <https://www.surfrider.org/campaigns/oahu-passes-climate-change-amendment>. ; http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/33673714/16-of-20-proposed-oahu-charter-amendments-approved
 Mileka Lincoln. “Gov. Ige Signs Bill Setting 100 Percent Renewable Energy Goal for State.” Hawaii News Now. 11 June 2015. <http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/29269793/gov-ige-signs-bill-setting-100-percent-renewable-energy-goal-for-state>.
2. Check out and donate to Sunrise, a movement Evan co-founded of young people in the United States uniting to stop the climate crisis, with a 4-year plan to make climate action an urgent priority in every corner of the country, expose the fossil fuel executives who have purchased politicians and blocked progress, and build a movement strong enough to elect a people’s government and pass an agenda for our health, home, and future.
3. Join the Sunrise movement in taking the Pledge to Protect Our Home and Resist Trump in your district this Summer.
4. Donate to Kahea, the Hawai`ian Environmental Alliance, a native Hawaiian-led environmental organization working to improve the quality of life for Hawai`i's people and future generations through the revitalization and protection of Hawai`i's unique natural and cultural resources.