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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.

Lush vegetation.
The Nāpali coast and Kalalau Trail on the north shore of Kaua'i. (Corinne Lutter / Getty Images)

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.”

Youth plaintiffs gather before the start of the Navahine F. v. the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation hearing at the First Circuit Environmental Court in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, on January 26, 2023. Pictured left to right: Kaʻōnohi P.-G., 16, KawahineʻIlikea N., 13, Taliya N., 15, Navahine F., 15, Mesina D.-R., 15, Kalā W., 19, Rylee K., 15, and Kawena F., 10. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

Navahine F.

Youth Plaintiff

Navahine F. is a 15-year-old Native Hawaiian born and raised on the island of Oʻahu in Hawaiʻi.

For ten generations, Navahine’s ʻohana (family) has farmed the same loʻi kalo (taro patches) using traditional Native Hawaiian practices.

Extreme weather driven by climate change threatens their farm and this enduring cultural practice important to many Native Hawaiians. Heavy rains, which are becoming more common, flood and damage the ancient ʻauwai (irrigation system) that deliver water to the kalo crop. Extended drought periods trigger rot in the kalo corm and spur invasive species by interrupting the stream flows that the wetland kalo depends upon for cool, flowing water.

Elyse Butler for Earthjustice

Kalā W.

Youth Plaintiff

Kalā W. is a 19-year-old with roots on both the islands of Kauaʻi and Oʻahu.

In April 2018, she and her family experienced one of Hawaiʻi’s recent extreme weather events. Their home is on Kauaʻi’s North Shore, where communities received nearly 50 inches of rain within 24 hours.

Close up portraits of Kalā
Youth plaintiff Kalā W., 19. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

The deluge produced some of the most devastating flooding conditions in Hawaiʻi’s recorded history.

This climate change-induced “rain bomb” destroyed homes, flooded loʻi farmed for local subsistence, and cut off road-based access into and out of Kalā’s community for several weeks.

Fallen trees in front of house with standing water
A car is wedged between a house and debris on the island of Kaua’i after the Anahola River broke its banks during heavy rains in April 2018. (Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island via AP)

After the flood, Kalā helped remove debris to restore Limahuli stream — the main water source for her community.

She has also advocated for rules implementing the Hāʻena Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area in order to manage the Hāʻena fishery for subsistence purposes.

These rules are based upon traditional and customary place-based knowledge of the area’s natural resources to preserve it in the public trust.

Aerial photo of lush, green Kaua'i and blue ocean water.
The Hā‘ena Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area, located on the north shore of Kaua’i, Hawai’i. (M.M. Sweet / Getty Images)

Hawaiʻi’s public trust doctrine is rooted in the ancient kānāwai (law) of pre-contact Hawaiʻi.

Since time immemorial Native Hawaiians have lived by the mandate to manage freshwater resources for the collective benefit of people and nature.

Six family members posing and looking directly in camera with a mountain behind them
Navahine F., center, and her family in their lo'i kalo (taro patch) in Hakipu'u, Hawaii. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

Many traditional Native Hawaiian land use practices, like kalo farming, depend on this fundamental principle.

Hawaiʻi’s constitution mandates the state government to “conserve and protect Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty and all natural resources.” The constitution also establishes that “[e]ach person has the right to a clean and healthful environment.”

Close up of taro roots, hands and dirt
Navahine harvests taro from their family's lo'i kalo (taro patch). (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

Kawena F.

Youth Plaintiff

Kawena F., aged 10, lives on Hawaiʻi Island with her parents and four younger siblings, and she is also learning traditional farming practices on her family’s taro patches.

Kawena’s family maintains a traditional Hawaiian diet, preparing traditional Hawaiian foods with produce from their land, and grows sweet potato, ginger, and ʻōlena (turmeric). Passing on traditional farming and cooking practices to Kawena and her siblings is important to this ʻohana (family).

But like Navahine’s ʻohana, long periods of drought and shifting growing seasons caused by climate change threaten Kawena’s food security and the viability of kalo farming across the islands.

Close up portrait of Kawena looking at camera
Kawena F., aged 10, is a youth plaintiff. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

Rising sea levels present another threat. As they infiltrate Hawaiʻi’s groundwater, the rising acidity of the soil further reduces kalo yields and threatens other native vegetation.

Some of Navahine’s family’s loʻi kalo (taro patches) sit only six inches above sea level. These lands will be underwater within her lifetime if drastic and immediate climate action is not taken.

As the most isolated island chain in the world, the encroaching Pacific threatening to swallow coastal resources looms large for many of the youth represented in this case.

Rows of crops with tractor in the background.
Navahine helps her father Kolea plant taro in their new dryland taro patch in July 2022. The family had to learn new irrigation techniques to farm dry land taro in one of their previous wetland taro patches that was no longer naturally filled. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

Kaʻōnohi P.-G.

Youth Plaintiff

Sea levels have started to inundate and destroy important cultural sites in Hawaiʻi, including at Kawa, Kaʻ>ū where Kaʻōnohi gathers paʻakai (salt).

Kaʻōnohi P.-G., a 16-year-old who lives in Puna, Hawaiʻi, deeply feels the loss of connection to his culture, traditions, and the place-based stories of his ancestors.

Kaʻōnohi grew up fishing and paddling in Hawaiʻi’s coastal waters. As sea levels continue to rise, Kaʻōnohi can also no longer launch his canoe from many places along the coast because the beaches have eroded and the water is too high.

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.

Signs urging the protection of cultural sites in Hakipu'u, Hawai’i. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)
Signs urging the protection of cultural sites in Hakipu'u, Hawai’i. (Elyse Butler for Earthjustice)

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.

Lots of cars crowded on interstate, with a on ramp above it.
Drivers head into downtown Honolulu from the island's West side. On an island that many people think of as paradise, heavy traffic and gridlock is a part of daily life. (Cathy Bussewitz / AP)

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.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.