Youth activists win ‘unprecedented’ climate settlement in Hawaii

Hawaii officials have announced a “groundbreaking” legal settlement with a group of young climate activists that they said will force the state’s transportation department to move more aggressively toward a zero-emission transportation system.

“You have a constitutional right to fight for sustainable climate policy, and you have mobilized our people in this case,” Josh Green, the governor of Hawaii, told the 13 young planters in the case, saying he hoped the settlement would to inspire similar actions. all over the place.

In what legal experts called a “historic” settlement, announced Thursday, Hawaii officials will release a roadmap “to fully decarbonize the state’s transportation systems, taking all actions necessary to achieve zero emissions.” no later than 2045 for land, sea and air transportation on the island,” Andrea Rodgers, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, said at a news conference with the governor.

“This is a tremendous, unprecedented victory for youth plaintiffs,” Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told the Guardian.

While Hawaii has long embraced a progressive climate change agenda, with 2045 as a target year for decarbonization, the new settlement is “as big a deal as everyone says it is,” said Denise Antolini, a professor emeritus of in law at the University of Hawaii. Law School, which has followed climate change litigation for decades.

“It’s written, it’s binding, and it makes all the difference in the world between a promise and actual implementation,” Antolini said.

The June 2022 lawsuit, Navahine F v. Hawaii Department of Transportation, was filed by 13 young people who claimed that the state’s fossil fuel transportation policies violate their state constitutional rights. By prioritizing projects like freeway expansion over efforts to electrify transit and promote walking and cycling, the complaint says, the state created “unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”

As a result, state officials harmed the plaintiffs’ ability to “live healthy lives in Hawaii now and in the future,” and violated the right to a clean and healthy environment guaranteed by the state constitution, the lawsuit argued.

It named the Hawaii Department of Transportation and its director, as well as the state of Hawaii and its former governor David Ige, as defendants.

The plaintiffs, most of whom are indigenous, claimed that by contributing to the climate crisis, the state has accelerated the “decline and disappearance of Hawai’i’s natural and cultural heritage.” When the case was filed, the applicants were between the ages of 9 and 18.

Several of the planters, many of whom are being identified only by their first names, spoke at the press conference.

“A wonderful thing to talk about is the kind of hope this brings us. For many of us, it has been our whole lives that we are seeing our beaches falling into the water and our coral reefs disappearing,” said Lucina, a 17-year-old plaintiff.

Navahine, named in the lawsuit, is a 16-year-old Native Hawaiian whose family has farmed the land “for ten generations.”

Drought, floods and rising sea levels all had immediate effects on her family’s crops, she said. “Seeing the effects, how we were struggling to make money for our farm, pushed me into this case,” she said.

Officials said the legal settlement brings together activists with all three branches of state government to focus on meeting climate change goals, including mobilizing the judicial branch. The court will oversee the settlement agreement until 2045 or until the state reaches its zero emissions goals, Rodgers said.

“We have extremely tough goals to hit by 2045, and this will ensure that we move forward much faster,” Ed Sniffen, head of the state’s transportation department, said at a news conference.

The town of Lahaina in August 2023, after a fire leveled the community. Photo: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

State officials often claim that Hawaii is a climate leader. In 2015, it became the first US state to require its electric utilities to reduce electricity sector emissions by 2045 – a tall order in a state that has historically taken most of large amount of energy from oil and coal.

The state legislature has also approved a goal to decarbonize the transportation sector. And Hawaii The 2050 Sustainability Plan calls for all government vehicles to be carbon-free by 2035.

But the state has gone in the wrong direction. Between 2020 and 2021, Hawaii’s carbon emissions increased by more than 16%. The plaintiffs say Hawaii’s transportation department has missed every interim standard to reduce planet-warming emissions since 2008. And per capita, Hawaii emits more carbon than 85% of places on Earth, the lawyers wrote in the year’s lawsuit. 2022.

The lawsuit came as part of a series of youth-led constitutional climate cases brought by the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust. Earlier this year, the firm scored a major victory when Montana’s supreme court upheld a groundbreaking ruling requiring state regulators to consider the climate crisis before approving permits for fossil fuel development.

Environmental law experts said the youth climate lawsuit strategy, which has been ongoing since 2011, has faced an uphill battle in many states.

“Until last year’s trial in Montana and today’s settlement in Hawaii, neither of them had succeeded,” Gerrard said, noting that both Hawaii and Montana “have a right to a clean written environment in their constitution”.

But Hawaii’s environmental court judges took the case seriously, fast-tracking it to a trial, which helped put pressure on the state to settle, Antolini said. The leadership of Green, who became Hawaii’s governor in December 2022, was also important.

“In none of the previous cases was the government of the defendant state willing to budge an inch; but here the governor embraced the plaintiffs’ claims and agreed to a broad injunction,” Gerrard said.

The Hawaii settlement is important because it is one of the first major cases “focused on laser transport,” which is responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions but which “tends to be ignored,” Antolini said.

The collaborative nature of the legal agreement, which promises to involve young people in advisory roles and brings together government officials, advocates, policymakers and teenagers, is also important, Antolini said, and appropriate for “an island community like Hawaii” where people know “we are in the boat together”.

Our Children’s Trust also has pending litigation in Alaska, Florida, Utah and Virginia. A federal lawsuit she filed in December against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also pending.

Last month, a federal appeals court granted the Biden administration’s request to dismiss another federal lawsuit brought by Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. United States.

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