Hawaii Agrees To ‘Groundbreaking’ Settlement Of Youth Climate Change Case

Hawaii Climate Change Case

Hawaii agreed on Thursday to decarbonize its transportation system by 2045, settling a lawsuit by 13 young people who claimed the state violated their constitutional rights with infrastructure that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Democratic Governor Josh Green announced the “groundbreaking” settlement at a news conference attended by activists and lawyers involved in the lawsuit, which they described as the first youth-led climate case seeking zero emissions in transportation.

The plaintiffs argued that the state prioritized infrastructure projects like highway construction and expansion, which promote fossil fuel use, over projects that reduce carbon emissions. “We’re addressing the impacts of climate change today, and needless to say, this is a priority because we know now that climate change is here,” Green stated. “It is not something that we’re considering in an abstract way in the future.”

The case, initially set for trial on Monday, would have marked the second-ever trial in the United States of a lawsuit by young people claiming that climate change endangers their futures and health, and that a state’s actions violated their rights. As part of the settlement, Hawaii will develop a roadmap to achieve zero emissions for its ground, sea, and inner island air transportation systems by 2045, aligning with the state’s goal to become carbon neutral by that year.

The agreement, enforceable in court, calls for creating a volunteer youth council to advise the state’s Department of Transportation, which committed to reworking its planning to prioritize reducing greenhouse gasses and establishing a new unit dedicated to decarbonization. The department also plans to allocate at least $40 million to expand the public electric vehicle charging network by 2030 and accelerate improvements to the state’s pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit networks.

Leinā’ala Ley, a lawyer for the youth activists at Earthjustice, said, “The agreement gives Hawaii a boost in our race against climate disaster and offers a model of best practices that other jurisdictions can also implement.” This case is one of several in which young environmental activists in the United States accuse governments of exacerbating climate change through policies that encourage or allow the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The young plaintiffs, represented by the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, claim these policies violate their rights under U.S. or state constitutions.

These cases have raised novel legal claims, leading several courts to dismiss them. However, the young activists scored a major victory last year when the first such case went to trial in Montana. In that case, a Montana judge concluded that the Republican-led state’s policies, which prohibit regulators from considering the impacts on climate change when approving fossil fuel projects, violate young people’s rights.

The youth activists filed the lawsuit against Hawaii in 2022, alleging that the state Department of Transportation operated a transportation system that violated state constitutional mandates and impaired their right to a life-sustaining climate. The plaintiffs, ages 9 to 18 when they filed the case, argued that the state violated a right guaranteed by the Hawaii Constitution to a clean and healthful environment and its constitutional duty to “conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources.”

The state spent $3 million fighting the case and seeking its dismissal, arguing that the zero emissions target and other state laws promoting reduced carbon emissions were “aspirational” and could not justify claiming the state violated the young people’s rights. However, Judge Jeffrey Crabtree in Honolulu rejected that argument in April 2023, stating that the laws required timely planning and action to address climate change and that the state’s inactions had already harmed the plaintiffs. “Transportation emissions are increasing and will increase at the rate we are going,” Crabtree said. “In other words, the alleged harms are not hypothetical or only in the future. They are current, ongoing, and getting worse.”