August 14, 2023
How Hawai‘i’s Youth Advocates are Fighting for Hawai‘i’s Future
As the climate crisis threatens their land, food, and traditions, 14 youth advocates took the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation to court to spur climate action.
Known as one of the earliest adopters of ambitious clean energy goals in the U.S., the Hawaiian Islands would appear a leader in the fight to tackle the climate crisis.
But inaction by key Hawaiʻi agencies means that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, and that by 2045 emissions will only be 30% lower than they were in 2016.
Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to the Hawaiian Islands’ world-famous natural environment. It also threatens its unique Native Hawaiian culture, which has endured for over one thousand years withstanding existential threats like European colonization and the islands’ annexation to the U.S.
Feeling the urgency of the climate crisis, 14 Hawaiʻi youth advocates sued the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation in 2022 to spur change and defend their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. A trial date has been set for June 2024. Some of the plaintiffs live on Maui, and their families are supporting community efforts to recover from the deadly climate-fueled wildfires.
The suit is part of a growing international movement of youth climate action in the courts, including a successful lawsuit in Montana. In that case, a district court judge ruled that laws restricting regulators from considering climate effects violated the state constitution’s provision to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.”
Elyse Butler for Earthjustice
Higher tides are also washing out traditional burial sites along the coast, exposing and scattering ʻiwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) laid to rest in the sands.
ʻIwi, cherished in traditional Hawaiian culture as the repository of a person’s mana (or spiritual energy) after death, are revered and respected by Hawaiʻi’s cultural practitioners like Navahine, Kawena, and Kaʻōnohi.
The disturbance of ʻiwi by rising sea levels inflicts emotional harm as would any other act of desecration against one’s ancestors.
Emissions from the transportation sector are a dominant and increasing contributor to Hawaiʻi’s greenhouse gas emissions, expected to make up nearly 60% of Hawaiʻi’s total emissions by 2030.
Hawaiʻi’s Department of Transportation (HDOT) has continued to promote, fund, and implement transportation projects that lock in and escalate the use of fossil fuels, rather than projects that mitigate and reduce emissions.
HDOT has consistently prioritized infrastructure projects such as highway construction and expansion. These increase the miles traveled by cars rather than projects that enable multi-modal travel by foot, bicycle, bus, and other forms of transit that prioritize alternative fuels.
HDOT has also not cooperated or coordinated with other agencies tasked with meeting the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, including establishing metrics for meeting the 2045 Zero Emissions Target.
Hawaiʻi’s kuleana (responsibility) to protect public trust resources for future generations and its commitment to address climate change, coupled with the persistent problem that it remains the most petroleum-dependent state in the nation, underscores why these 14 youth have turned to the court: they need help protecting their rights and it’s the job of the courts to do so.
Elyse Butler for Earthjustice
Earthjustice and Our Children’s Trust are representing these youth plaintiffs to ensure that their constitutional rights and their futures are defended from the worst of climate change and those who are both actively making it worse and failing to do everything in their power to avert this crisis. Earthjustice’s involvement in this lawsuit is part of our broader fight against the fossil fuel industry.