Hawaii Settles With Young Plaintiffs in Climate Case


The government of Hawaii on Thursday settled a lawsuit with a group of young people who had sued the state’s Department of Transportation over its use of fossil fuels. It was the latest in a series of victories around the world in cases filed by young plaintiffs.

The case was brought in 2022 and organized by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization that is pursuing similar cases in other states and federal courts, and Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. Last year a group in Montana, also organized by Our Children’s Trust, won their case against that state with a similar argument to the one presented in Hawaii.

The Hawaii case alleged that, by depending on polluting fuels such as gasoline, the state’s Department of Transportation was violating Hawaii’s Constitution, which guarantees the “right to a clean and healthful environment.”

The settlement, which was announced shortly before the case was to have gone to trial, requires the state to make a series of changes to reduce planet-warming emissions. It also recognizes the constitutional rights of young people in the state to a clean and healthy environment.

“We got what we came for, and we got it faster than we expected,” Navahine F., the lead plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement. (Some of the plaintiffs have not been publicly identified because of their age.)

The settlement was approved by a court, and Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii announced the agreement alongside the youths who brought the case.

“The passion demonstrated by these young people in advocating for a healthy, sustainable future for their generation and those to come, is laudable,” Governor Green said in a statement. “This settlement informs how we as a state can best move forward to achieve life-sustaining goals.”

The state said it would make a plan that would fully decarbonize its transportation system within 20 years and would soon begin work expanding bicycle lanes. It also plans to spend at least $40 million by 2030 installing electric vehicle chargers.

“Navahine youth plaintiffs activated the courts and inspired true democracy in action,” said Julia Olson, the founder of Our Children’s Trust.

But other parts of the transportation sector will be harder to decarbonize.

The Department of Transportation oversees the state’s airports, and there are currently no feasible ways to power passenger jets without fossil fuels. The department also manages the state’s harbors, where container ships and cruise ships are also reliant on fossil fuels.

While the state of Hawaii was a defendant in this case, the state’s capital, Honolulu, is a plaintiff in another high-profile climate case. In 2020, the city sued Sunoco and other big oil companies, accusing them of misleading the public about the risks of climate change.

That case, one of several similar lawsuits brought by cities and states against the fossil fuel industry, recently took a potential step toward the Supreme Court.

Sunoco declined to comment on pending litigation.

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