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Honoli'i Beach Park on August 26, 2018 in Hilo, Hawaii

A young bodyboarder steps over the remains of trees that were destroyed by floods during Hurricane Lane at Honoli'i Beach Park on August 26, 2018 in Hilo, Hawaii. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Hawaii Youth Launch Landmark Climate Case Targeting Transportation Pollution

"The Hawaii Department of Transportation has been a flat tire in our transition to a decarbonized future for too long. With this lawsuit, these young people are helping steer the agency towards genuine climate justice in the Hawaiian Islands."

Kenny Stancil

Fourteen young people on Wednesday filed a groundbreaking constitutional climate lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Transportation and its director, Jade Butay; Hawaii Gov. David Ige; and the State of Hawaii.

"Climate change is drastically changing lives around the world and we need our governments to take it and us seriously."

In Navahine F. v. Hawaii Department of Transportation—the world's first constitutional climate lawsuit focused exclusively on combating transportation-related pollution—the youth plaintiffs argue that their state DOT's promotion of a system that produces high levels of greenhouse gas emissions harms their communities, infringes upon their constitutional rights, and jeopardizes their ability to "live healthful lives in Hawaii now and into the future."

"I want the defendants to understand that climate change is not an impending doom, but a preventable crisis that is currently harming Hawaii's youth," plaintiff Mesina D.-R. said in a statement.

This group of young people—who range in age from nine to 18 and are from the islands of Hawai'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Maui, and Kaua'i—is going to court to ensure that HDOT fulfills its legal mandate to fully decarbonize Hawaii's transportation sector by 2045, which is the state Legislature's deadline for achieving an economy with net-negative carbon emissions.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to issue declarations of law that HDOT is violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment—including a life-sustaining climate system—as well as the state's public trust doctrine to "conserve and protect Hawaii's natural beauty and all natural resources." The plaintiffs are also seeking injunctive relief to "bring the state transportation system into constitutional compliance based on the best available science."

"The Hawaii Department of Transportation has been a flat tire in our transition to a decarbonized future for too long," said Leinā'ala Ley, an attorney in Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific office and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs. "With this lawsuit, these young people are helping steer the agency towards genuine climate justice in the Hawaiian Islands."

Compared with people born in 1960, children born in 2020 are expected to endure a two to seven-fold increase in extreme weather events such as heatwaves, wildfires, crop failures, droughts, and floods.

Although Hawaii lawmakers have acknowledged the gravity of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis and enacted some measures aimed at addressing it, the state's per capita greenhouse gas emissions remain higher than 85% of the nations on Earth and are expected to be just 30% lower in 2045—the target date for realizing a "Zero Emissions Clean Economy"—than they were in 2016.

Emissions from the transportation sector are a major reason why, as they are on the rise and projected to make up almost 60% of Hawaii's total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

"While in many ways Hawaii has been a leader in recognizing and setting goals to address the climate emergency, progress is slow because of the unconstitutional, and uncooperative, actions of the state Department of Transportation," said Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney at Our Children's Trust and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs. "It is vital that the court ensures that the Department of Transportation catches up with others in the state working towards decarbonizing Hawaii's economy to protect the lives of these young people."

As Earthjustice and Our Children's Trust explained:

Hawaii's public trust doctrine, rooted in the kānāwai (laws) of the Hawaiian Kingdom and carried forward in the state constitution, is a well-established requirement of government agencies to protect natural and cultural resources for the benefit of Native Hawaiians and all of the people of Hawaii. Hawaii's Supreme Court has already concluded that climate change "harms present and future generations," and that Hawaii is specifically "vulnerable to the ecological damage caused by an unhealthy climate system." Similarly, the Hawaii state Legislature has repeatedly found that "climate change poses a serious threat to the economic well-being, public health, natural resources, and the environment of Hawaii," and has directed state agencies to reduce greenhouse emissions to below zero.

HDOT, however, "is doing the opposite of what the law requires," said Rodgers.

"By prioritizing infrastructure that promotes travel in fossil-fueled vehicles," she continued, "HDOT demonstrates a pattern and practice that locks in and escalates the use of fossil fuels, instead of reducing them."

Young people involved in the case made clear what is at stake if HDOT fails to swiftly implement a non-polluting transportation system.

"Climate change is very bad," said plaintiff Taliya N. "It causes extreme droughts and extreme rain. There is either not enough water for my family to shower or way too much water and I can't get to school because the roads are flooded."

Kaliko T. noted that "climate change really impacted my life because I lost my house in a flood."

"Luckily I was not in my house at the time because I would probably have lost my life," the plaintiff added. "Climate change is drastically changing lives around the world and we need our governments to take it and us seriously."

Navahine F. v. Hawaii Department of Transportation is one of several youth-led constitutional climate lawsuits brought by Our Children's Trust and fellow public interest groups like Earthjustice. Our Children's Trust also represents 16 youth plaintiffs who are slated to proceed to trial in February 2023 in Held v. State of Montana and 21 youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a landmark federal constitutional climate lawsuit that the Biden administration is currently trying to quash.

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