NĀNĀKULI, Hawaii – When Kalehua Krug became principal of Ka Waihona O Ka Na‘auao several years ago, he and his team cut down some age-old trees that towered over the charter school’s front lawn. 

The decision caused “a bit of a stir” in the rural, coastal West Oahu community of Nānākuli, Krug said. One elderly resident told Krug removing the trees was akin to erasing a neighborhood legacy. 

But Krug’s intention was, in fact, to reclaim that legacy. 

A plurality of the area’s residents are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and most of them are low-income. The monkeypod and ficus trees Krug had cut down are species that were, like the forced assimilation suffered by Hawaii’s Indigenous people, introduced to the islands by outsiders. In the old trees’ place, Krug and his team planted breadfruit, a staple in the traditional Hawaiian diet and a material used for everything from canoes to glue. 

It’s all part of the Native Hawaiian concept of aloha ʻāina – “love of land” – which has become crucial to both Hawaii’s cultural awareness and its existence.

The Pacific island chain is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Its beaches are disappearing thanks to expedited sea-level rise, now estimated at an inch every four years. Three of Hawaii’s eight main islands have lost nearly a quarter of their shores. Last spring, Hawaii became the first state to declare a climate emergency. 

Hawaii is also dangerously reliant on imported goods, with more than 80% of its food brought in from out-of-state.

So it’s no surprise people in Hawaii are significantly more likely to discuss climate change than the average American, according to a 2021 Yale study. Close to half of Hawaii residents talk about climate change with their family at least once weekly, the study suggests, compared with a little more than a third of all Americans.

Hawaii’s schools hope to lead climate education across the U.S., too.

Read the full story in USA TODAY.