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Justice for Hawaii?
Hawaii youth are seeking accountability for climate change amid historic wildfires. Plus, an analysis of climate mentions in breaking wildfire news coverage.
Before the wildfires that would eventually become the deadliest in U.S. history broke out in Maui, climate change had already upended 13-year-old Kaliko’s life.
The Native Hawaiian teenager lost her home in Hurricane Olivia, the first-ever recorded tropical storm to make landfall in Maui, in 2018. Scientists have found that climate change is increasing the risk of stronger and more frequent hurricanes in the state.
That tragedy was why, in 2022, Kaliko joined 13 other young Hawaiians in suing her state government for ignoring the climate crisis by promoting fossil fuels.
That lawsuit, scheduled for trial next year on June 24, claims that by failing to reduce emissions, the government is “endangering [childrens’] opportunity to live safe and healthy lives, enjoy the activities and access to places they have grown up enjoying, and perpetuate and pass on cultural traditions that rely upon healthy, functioning ecosystems.”
“I joined this case so nobody would have to experience what I have experienced, and so I can make the world a better place,” Kaliko, who was only identified by her first name due to her age, told Grist from her home in west Maui last week.
But the day after that interview, tragedy struck in Maui again. Severe wildfires made more likely by climate change sowed chaos and terror across the island, killing at least 96 people.
Kaliko is safe, even though her home is in the path of the wildfires. According to court documents, she lives in Honokōhau, Maui, about 15 miles north of Lahaina. “Kaliko is currently processing the loss of Lahaina with her family and community,” her attorneys told HEATED.
The horrifying situation underscores why so many youth like Kaliko, in Hawaii and across the country, are now seeking justice via the court system—and why, for the first time, it looks like they could actually win.
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“The strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court”
Over the past decade, the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust has filed lawsuits like the one in Hawaii across all 50 states, seeking to hold governments accountable for failing to act on climate change.
Yesterday, they achieved their first victory.
The case, Held v. Montana, was the first of its kind to go to trial. It alleged the state violated the Constitutional rights of its 16 youth plaintiffs, aged 2 to 18 at the time of its filing, by promoting fossil fuels.
Specifically, the lawsuit claimed Montana had violated the plaintiffs’ right to a “clean and healthful environment” by passing a law that barred the state from considering the climate impacts of potential fossil fuel projects. The state had never before rejected a fossil fuel project, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
After an emotional trial, which featured testimony from the plaintiffs’ about how climate change has affected their lives, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley agreed.
In a 103-page order, Seeley ruled that the state’s law barring climate considerations was unconstitutional. She also ruled that fossil fuel use is the principal cause of climate change; that climate change is causing serious mental and physical harm; that renewables can be economically substituted for fossil fuels; and that the youth plaintiffs have a constitutional right to a stable climate system.
The ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, where plaintiffs may have a harder time proving their case. But either way, “I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court,” Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told HEATED.
And though the ruling was 3,000 miles away from Hawaii, Gerrard added, it could provide a model for success there, too.
“Putting a human face on this global problem worked well in this courtroom,” he said, “and may well be followed elsewhere.”
Fueling Hawaii’s fire for justice
Like Montana, Navahine v. Hawai‘i Department of Transportation alleges that the state has violated Hawaiian’s constitutional rights by prioritizing fossil fuels over greener projects. And now the Montana ruling could help bolster Kaliko and her fellow plaintiffs’ chances of winning.
“This is a huge win for young people and we hope this ruling gives more judges the courage to uphold young people’s rights in other states, including in Hawai’i,” said Kimberly Willis, a staff attorney with Our Children's Trust. “This ruling gives the youth plaintiffs in Hawai'i hope that their voices matter.”
“It's a very promising sign,” said Michael Wilson, a former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice. The Hawaii constitution states that “each person has the right to a clean and healthful environment.” And the Hawaii Supreme Court recently ruled that “we have a climate emergency and there's an obligation on the part of the government to act in a way that recognizes the rights of a life-sustaining climate,” he said.
That historic ruling came in March, when the Hawaii Supreme Court was the first in the U.S. to recognize the human right to a stable climate. “Climate change is a human rights issue at its core,” Wilson wrote in his concurring opinion. “Not only does it inordinately impact young people and future generations, but it is also a profound environmental injustice disproportionately impacting native peoples.”
These youth-led climate cases are establishing precedents that could have a tangible impact on how who is held accountable for climate change. In the case of Hawaii, Wilson says the upcoming climate suit could lead to the state’s department of transportation creating a kind of climate protection plan. He imagines that other lawsuits could go even further, with federal judges halting the flow of millions in fossil fuel subsidies, or pausing fossil fuel extraction until a more thorough environmental analysis takes place.
That may be unlikely given that federal courts have recently overturned, dismissed, or delayed similar youth-led climate cases, including the high-profile Juliana v. US. These federal decisions are in stark contrast to yesterday’s ruling in Montana.
“The distance of federal judges from their community is greater than the state courts,” said Wilson, who spoke to HEATED from his home in Honolulu. “We'll see whether the judges who have these cases have that kind of courage to supply a remedy that's commensurate with the injury.”
But even in a best case scenario for youth plaintiffs, Wilson said, the law can’t act alone. For example, while Montana’s district court decision could be a hopeful sign of things to come, the enforcement of the state’s climate laws still depends on its Republican legislature.
The Hawaii youth lawsuit recognizes this, too. "At this moment of crisis,” it said, “it will take each of our three branches of government to protect our children from the existential crisis of climate change.”
Still, that shouldn’t take away from the importance of the youth climate lawsuits, and the impact they could have if they continue to win.
“It's a symbol for young people that they can have hope and they can have power,” Wilson said. “But they certainly should not feel that the judges of the world are going to be able to save them.”
Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly claimed Hurricane Olivia was the first tropical storm to make landfall in Hawaii. It is the first tropical storm to make landfall in Maui.
More news on Maui wildfires
National breaking news coverage of Maui wildfires didn’t often mention climate change. While reporting Sunday’s story, Emily started a spreadsheet to track national breaking news coverage of the Maui wildfires, linked here. It’s not comprehensive, but she found only 7 of the 20 breaking news stories she tracked mentioned climate change.
Scientists have confidently stated for years that climate change is making wildfires worse, so it’s our position that any breaking news story about severe wildfires should mention it, or else it contributes to a systemic failure to inform.
We should note, the spreadsheet does not include the many stand-alone stories about climate change’s connection to the wildfires, which we commend. We just believe the average breaking news consumer deserves that crucial information, too.
Reuters’ breaking news team shows how easy it is to inform. Despite not seeing climate change in most of the breaking news stories on Maui’s wildfires, we were happy to see it in seven of them, including Reuters’ breaking news story—the only one to mention not just the role of climate change, but of fossil fuels.
See how easy it is?
The relationship between colonization and climate change is inseparable. On Sunday, we published a story about how Lahaina used to be a wetland until colonists diverted its water for agriculture. The same day, The New York Times published a fascinating story on how invasive non-native plants, brought over by European colonists to aid in agriculture, also made wildfires worse.
These two stories alone establish a strong case that colonization aided in Lahaina’s destruction. Add in the fact that colonization led to industrialization, which created the emissions that dried out Maui’s climate, and you can begin to understand why land back is such an important climate solution.
The New York Times’ awesome coverage of Lahaina undermined by Chevron propaganda. Look, we loved the story about the invasive grasses. But seeing this halfway down felt a bit ridiculous.
The New York Times has told us it doesn’t let oil companies advertise on its climate newsletter or podcasts. But regular climate articles appear to be fair game.
Catch of the Day: Furball Monty frequently likes to get in front of reader Kaitlin’s computer screen.
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