President Mike Latham ’86 – Rising to the Challenge

By Mike Latham ’86

Sustainability is now both the existential challenge of our time and a space for tremendous creativity and innovation. The recent reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offer a particularly stark assessment. This international team of scientists and policy experts has made it clear that global warming presents multiple threats for our planet, including the likelihood of dramatic sea level rise, prolonged droughts, extreme weather, declines in food production and sweeping biodiversity loss.

Scientists have estimated that temperature increases beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels would produce global changes that cannot be averted, and they have also warned that the world’s countries have failed to take sufficient steps to prevent that fate. With the potential for the world to warm up to three degrees Celsius by the end of the century, water scarcity, loss of farmland, and the extinction of nearly a third of known plant and animal species could make large sections of the planet uninhabitable and result in massive human displacements.

At Punahou, we believe that education must play a vital role in framing an innovative and creative response. Although the facts are troubling, visionary strategies and solutions hold out the promise for a different future, especially if we can move forward now. The realities of global warming, climate change and pollution are daunting, but we are committed to responding to this challenge in three major directions.

First, we aim to build a comprehensive approach to sustainability education for kindergarten through 12th grade, enabling a generation of students to understand the key factors shaping climate change and planetary boundaries from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Second, following our strategic plan, we strive to give students opportunities to apply their knowledge to authentic challenges and real-world problems. A Punahou education does not sit within the walls of a classroom, and we want to ensure that our students, and other students throughout the state, are empowered by the fact that their actions matter.

Finally, we seek to ensure that our own campus operations and practices are as sustainable as we can make them.

Sustainability education is already a high priority in our Junior School. Walking across campus, I have found kindergartners and first graders learning to compost, growing food in a shared garden, and collecting rainfall to water the plants surrounding the Omidyar Neighborhood. In a recent Chapel, second graders led a lesson about the impact of pollution on the health of our oceans and the ways that we can all cut back on single-use plastics. On classroom visits, I have watched fifth graders discuss the impact of climate change on Hawaiian forest life and Case Middle School students analyze the nitrogen cycle and the disruptive effects of heavy fertilizer use.

In mid-April, as part of our Earth Day celebrations, the Luke Center for Public Service and the seventh grade social studies department organized an amazing Sustainability Speakers Series. The lineup included experts like Sarah Craven ’81, director of the United Nations Population Fund; Dawn Lippert, founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator; Celeste Connors ’94, executive director of Hawai‘i Green Growth; District Court Judge Wes Reber Porter; Maxine Burkett, senior advisor to Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry; and United States Attorney for the District of Hawaii Clare Connors ’92.

Kuaihelani, our Center for ‘Ike Hawai‘i, enables students to learn about indigenous knowledge of the environment. A thriving Outdoor Education program sends children throughout the Islands to explore the natural world and a campus-wide Sustainability Fair featured student exhibits on coral reef protection, food security and recycling. In the Academy, we have launched a dynamic new project-based curriculum as well. Global Sustainability by Design (GSD) courses draw direct connections between knowledge and application. Oriented around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, GSD courses bridge science, public policy, engineering, art and literature to empower students to draw knowledge from multiple fields.

Collaborating in teams, students conduct research, launch educational initiatives and design products. They create devices to extract water from the air, build vertical gardens and work with photovoltaic cells. At the junior and senior levels, Environmental Problem Solving is a popular offering, and enrollments have climbed to the point that we have filled nine sections of Advanced Placement Environmental Science, involving nearly three hundred students.

In collaboration with the Case Accelerator for Student Entrepreneurship, students are developing tools to assess water purity and providing refurbished computer hardware to students in need across the state, reducing electronic waste. The learning doesn’t stop at the boundaries of campus either. This year, thanks to the vision of one of our trustees and the work of the Wo International Center, five Punahou students and five students from the Hawai‘i public schools will travel together to Switzerland to participate in the inaugural Villars Institute Symposium, joining over two hundred students from around the world in meeting with leading experts, educators and entrepreneurs to explore strategies to restore the health of the planet and accelerate the transition toward a net-zero energy economy. To counteract the travel-related carbon footprint from this trip, Punahou has purchased carbon offsets through airlines that have partnered with Conservation International, an organization which supports projects to help reduce greenhouse gases and provide social and economic benefits to communities around the world.

We also have ambitious plans for the future. Punahou is now searching for its inaugural director of sustainability, a new position that will frame our school’s overall sustainability strategy. This will include educational and curricular initiatives, faculty and staff professional development, and planning with respect to our own school’s operations. In the near term, we envision the creation of a new sustainability certificate program that will be open to Punahou students as well as to public high school students and combine academic coursework with public-facing experiences. Using the unique assets of Hawai‘i as a laboratory and innovation center, students will connect what they learn in science, politics, economics and humanities courses with volunteer work, internships and research experiences in non-profits, government agencies, private sector firms and educational partners.

We also plan to conduct a review of our own campus operations to determine how we can further advance our progress toward a net-zero energy profile and define green standards for transportation, food sourcing, water use and waste management. That initiative, we are sure, will provide additional opportunities for student research, learning and engagement.

A few weeks ago, Chaplain Lauren Medeiros invited me to join a service for our elementary school students focused on the theme of mālama ‘āina, caring for and protecting the land. Reflecting on our shared responsibility to care for God’s creation, I showed the children the famous “Earthrise” photograph, taken from space during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

The image is a powerful one, depicting a blue planet emerging from the darkness above the scarred and barren surface of the moon. For me, it called to mind an Episcopal prayer reflecting on “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” The challenges in taking care of that home, the only one we have, are real and pressing.

But I am hopeful that our efforts to educate the next generation of innovative and entrepreneurial leaders will make a pivotal difference, and I invite you to join us in that work.

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