Why Hawaii is taking Big Oil to court

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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[Enter prompt for readers to drink water, as water is important, and so are readers.]

A special update on last week

Last week, HEATED published an investigation into Twitter’s upcoming policy banning political advertisements. It revealed that many of ExxonMobil’s climate-related ads likely wouldn’t be banned, while climate advocacy groups’ ads would. That same day, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted about the article—and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey responded. Pretty wild, right?

It gets wilder. Since last week, HEATED’s investigation has sparked a national conversation about Twitter’s ad policy and the climate crisis. The piece and Warren’s response has been cited by The Guardian, The Washington Post, Axios, CNBC, Business Insider, The Intercept, and National Review, among others.

This means that when Twitter releases its official new ad policy on Friday, we won’t be the only ones reading closely for language regarding fossil fuel companies and environmental groups. That’s because of your support for this newsletter and independent journalism.

So please, if you value this type of reporting—and want to keep pushing accountability into the national dialogue about climate change—subscribe to HEATED. And if you’re already subscribed, you can help spread the word by clicking below.


Anyway, the news. It’s here! Let’s do it.

Hawaii to Big Oil: Aloha, jerks

A few weeks ago, when I was on NPR’s Science Friday, I was asked to explain the growing number of climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. I replied:

Say you buy a candy bar, and the candy bar causes you to get migraines, and the company knows that but they don’t tell you, and you get migraines. You can sue them. It’s the same with fossil fuels. Lawsuits are seeking to hold them accountable for making false claims, and misleading the public, about the fact that their product caused climate change.

Looking back, “migraines” was a bad example—at least as a comparison to climate change. A more apt comparison would have been cancer.

Imagine you ate a candy bar, and that candy bar gave you a life-threatening disease that could only be solved by extremely high-cost, time-intensive treatment. In addition to threatening to bankrupt you, the treatment would be unpleasant, and would not even guarantee all of the symptoms would go away forever.

Now imagine the candy bar company knew their product could give you this cancer—but instead of warning you about it, it embarked on a multi-decade campaign to downplay the risks and prevent anything from being done to take those candy bars off the market.

If this happened, you would be dumb not to sue the candy bar company. The worst-case scenario would be that you lose, and have to pay the comparatively low costs of litigation alongside the treatment. Boo-hoo, you’re dying anyway—you really have no choice but to get the treatment. But the best-case scenario would be that you win. Your life becomes a bit easier while you’re experiencing all the pain.

That’s essentially what Honolulu and Maui are seeking to do with their respective lawsuits against Big Oil.

Two more court cases

Last week, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced his intention to file a lawsuit against eight fossil fuel companies, in an attempt to recoup some of the high costs that climate change threatens to impose on Hawaii taxpayers.

Standing in front of the ocean, Caldwell showed a slide listing a few of the expected financial impacts of the climate crisis on Hawaii. “For 50 years, Big Oil knew about these impacts,” he said. “They knew—and then they covered it up.” 

The week prior, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino made a similar lawsuit announcement. As Hawaii News Now reported:

The suit comes during a particularly bad wildfire season on Maui. Some 23,000 acres have burned so far―six times the total seen last year. Meanwhile, it’s estimated than a 3.2-foot rise in sea level could cause nearly $2 billion in damages to the coastline, infrastructure, and structures in West Maui alone.

“Someone needs to pay,” Victorino said.

Hawaii’s unique impacts

The city councils of both Maui and Honolulu need to approve resolutions authorizing the respective lawsuits before they move forward. But when they do, they will join what InsideClimate News has called “a wave of legal challenges washing over the fossil fuel industry.”

Over the past few years: Two states launched fraud investigations into Exxon over climate change, and one has followed with a lawsuit that went to trial in October 2019. Nine cities and counties, from New York to San Francisco, have sued major fossil fuel companies, seeking compensation for climate change damages. And determined children have filed lawsuits against the federal government and various state governments, claiming the governments have an obligation to safeguard the environment.

The litigation, reinforced by science, has the potential to reshape the way the world thinks about energy production and the consequences of global warming.

Hawaii is already on the front lines of the climate crisis. A report put together by numerous federal agencies last year said the state has less time to prepare for catastrophic impacts than other U.S. states, and that sea level rise of up to 3.2 feet is possible as early as 2060. “That means by 2060, 38 miles of major roads would be chronically flooded, nearly 550 Hawaiian cultural sites flooded, and more than 6,500 structures and 25,800 acres of land near the shoreline would be unusable or lost, displacing roughly 20,000 residents,” according to a report in Hawaii News Now.

Because it’s in the Pacific Ocean, the state doesn’t normally see hurricanes. But it got one last year, and Hurricane Lane literally washed away an entire 11-acre island owned by the state. According to a 2013 study published in Nature Climate Change, the state could see “a two-to-three-fold increase in tropical cyclones by the last quarter of this century.” 

Hawaii is also projected to see uniquely high-cost impacts from climate change. “We see rainfall patterns changing, coral reefs bleaching and dying, and sea levels rising,” said Victoria Keener, research fellow at the East-West Center. “We have more than $19 billion at stake just in the value of land and structures in Hawaii expected to flood by 2100, and that doesn’t include the social costs.”

The below gif shows how sea level rise is projected to accelerate around Waikiki and Honolulu under a worst-case scenario: if sea levels rose 6 feet by 2100. “The new shoreline would be almost a full mile inland (past the Waikiki hotel strip and into neighborhoods such as Kakaako, downtown Honolulu, and even Moiliili),” HuffPost reported. “Such a scenario would impact hotel revenues by as much as $661.2 million, with a scary $2 billion lost overall, each year.”

This is why Hawaii’s largest counties are suing fossil fuel companies: because at this point, they really have nothing to lose. “Big Oil used the same deception playbook as tobacco and opioid companies,” said Richard Wiles, the executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, in an emailed statement. “They’ve been made to pay for their bad actions, and now it’s time the fossil fuel industry was held accountable, too.”

Defendents will reportedly include Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, the BHP Group, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Petroleum, and Aloha Petroleum.

A reader-submitted meme

HEATED’s editorial memeist @climemechange is taking a break today, but here’s one made by reader Kait Keslar. Kait emailed me this last week after I made up a dumb rhyme to tell you all to drink more water.

Kait said she made the image for an English composition class at her university, and turned it in for a grade. “The assignment was to create an appropriate and then an inappropriate example of how to best display a quote using text and graphics to convey a message,” she wrote. (The one above is the appropriate example).

Is HEATED inspiring your homework, or driving you to create internet art? Let me know—I would love to see it! I’m at emily@heated.world.

OK, that’s all for today—thank for reading HEATED!

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See you tomorrow!