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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Hawaii settles youth climate lawsuit, pledges ambitious green goals

The 13 plaintiffs from Hawaii took on the transportation sector, winning commitments for green infrastructure and investment in electric transit.

HONOLULU (CN) — Hawaii officials and 13 young environmental activists reached a settlement Thursday in a constitutional climate lawsuit in which the state committed to accelerate its transition to zero-emission transportation.

The agreement, announced at a press conference at the Hawaii State Capitol, marks a significant victory for youth-led climate litigation and sets new benchmarks for the state's environmental policies.

“I am so proud of all the hard work to get us to this historic moment. We got what we came for, and we got it faster than we expected. Mai kuhihewa (Make no mistake) young people have the power to make a difference for their futures,” said Navahine F., the 16-year-old lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Governor Josh Green, flanked by plaintiffs and state officials, outlined ambitious plans to decarbonize Hawaii's economy and address its unique vulnerabilities to climate change.

“We are the most isolated landmass on the planet. We’re dependent, too dependent on fossil fuels, we’re vulnerable to climate change impacts like rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and extreme weather events like we saw in Maui,” Green said at the conference. “So it’s important that we stand up for the future and we’ve set up ambitious goals to decarbonize our economy.” 

The settlement reached between the parties acknowledges the constitutional right of young people to a clean and healthful environment, potentially setting a precedent for similar cases nationwide. It requires the state to increase energy efficiency, develop a more climate conscious transportation system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The group of 13 plaintiffs were between 9 and 18 years old when they filed the June 2022 lawsuit, Navahine v. Hawaii Department of Transportation, claiming Hawaii was set to miss its 2045 carbon-neutral goal by a wide margin, despite being a leader in climate change recognition.

From across the islands, many of the plaintiffs are Native Hawaiians who are seeing the harms of climate change already: sea level rise, drought, floods and fires — all of which threaten their lives and ability to carry out practices like growing the karo plant, fishing and gathering.

They decided to take on the transportation sector, which they said likely would comprise nearly 60% of the state's total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The agreement requires investments in green infrastructure, including finishing pedestrian and bicycle networks in the next five years.

Under the settlement, at least $40 million will be dedicated to expanding the public electric vehicle charging network by 2030. A volunteer youth council will advise the Hawaii Department of Transportation on its climate commitments.

Ed Sniffen, the department's deputy director, spoke during Thursday's conference alongside the young plaintiffs, who are represented by nonprofit environmental law firms Our Children's Trust and Earthjustice.

“Climate change is indisputable. Burying our heads in the sand and making it the next generation’s problem is not pono (righteous),” Sniffen said. “We’re committing to develop and use greenhouse gas emission measurements and reductions in vehicle miles traveled when we develop ground transportation projects and look for ways to translate that to our Airports and Harbors projects.”

The settlement is part of a broader legal movement by youth activists in the U.S. who link government policies supporting fossil fuel industries to the acceleration of climate change.

While many courts rejected these lawsuits as overreaching judicial authority, young activists secured a major win in Montana last year after bringing to trial the first climate case of its kind.

The kids' concerns are science-backed: Experts predict children born in 2020 will face up to seven times more extreme climate events than people born in 1960, including heat waves, crop failures, wildfires, droughts and floods.

Meanwhile, Hawaii produces more greenhouse gasses per person than 85% of nations globally, according to the 2022 lawsuit.

Green said he plans to enact legislation to reach Hawaii's goals of zero transportation emissions and carbon neutrality by 2045,

“We have to acknowledge that there's a very, very heavy carbon footprint for travel between the mainland to Hawaii,” Green said in an interview with Courthouse News. “This settlement shows how we as a state can best move forward to achieve life-sustaining goals.” 

The governor began to make good on that promise by signing two bills at Thursday's conference: House Bill 2020 broadens the definition of "renewable energy producer" for public land allocation, while House Bill 2390 directs state utilities officials to weigh the state's fossil fuel dependence.

Part of the decarbonization strategy, Green said, involves transitioning all ground transportation fleets to electric energy by 2023, reducing overall consumption and pushing for stricter environmental guidelines in the hotel industry. 

Green emphasized that, along with its environmental objectives, Hawaii has to consider financial burdens on residents who face the nation's highest living costs. He put forth one suggestion: ask tourists to help pay the cost.

“We have 10 million individuals that come to Hawaii every year. Can you imagine for a moment if we successfully were humbly asking people to pay $25 when they come to visit the state?" Green said. "There would be $250 million every single year to pay for bikeways, to bring very advanced analytics to what our carbon footprint is, to use that money to get bonds to navigate major protections against erosion of the coastline."

“It’s not going to be inexpensive," the governor added, "and it’s not going to be easy.” 

Rylee Brooke Kamahele, the 16-year-old activist who was named Youth Advocate of the Year in 2023 by the Hawaii Children's Action Network, spoke Thursday about the significance of the settlement, offering words of hope for the future.

“Today is a victory for us, the state, and every young person who believes in the power of their voice,” Kamahele said.

“Today is a testament to what can be achieved when we stand together with purpose and conviction and hold our governments to their promises for our planet … Let’s strive for a future where sustainability and justice prevail.”

Categories / Energy, Environment, Politics

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