This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on Aug. 17, 2023. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.
As the Hawaiian island of Maui is reeling from the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century, the Hawaii Supreme Court on Thursday is set to hear fossil fuel giants’ request to dismiss a climate liability lawsuit filed by the City and County of Honolulu on Oahu.
Honolulu leaders sued companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Sunono in March 2020. Just seven months later, Maui County followed suit, launching a case against those and other Big Oil firms. Both complaints mention worsening wildfires.
“The average air temperature in the city is currently warming at a rate that is approximately four times faster than the warming rate 50 years ago,” the Honolulu complaint states. “Warming air temperatures have led to heatwaves, expanded pathogen and invasive species ranges, thermal stress for native flora and fauna, increased electricity demand, increased occurrence and intensity of wildfire, threats to human health such as from heat stroke and dehydration, and decreased water supply due to increased evaporation and demand.”
The Maui filing explains that “wildfires are becoming more frequent, intense, and destructive in the county. As climate changes, stronger El Niño events become more frequent. El Niños alter Hawaii’s weather patterns, bringing wetter summers which in turn provide prime conditions for fast-growing grasses and invasive species, followed by prolonged periods of drought and hotter average temperatures, which desiccate vegetation thereby increasing the fuel available for fires.”
“The county’s fire ‘season’ now runs year-round, rather than only a few months of the year,” the 2020 document adds. “In 2019, called the ‘year of fire’ on Maui, 26,000 acres burned in the County—more than six times the total area burned in 2018.”
Three years after the filings, the Northern Hemisphere is enduring a summer of unprecedented heat that scientists say “would have been virtually impossible” without the burning of fossil fuels, and Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was leveled last week in a Maui County fire that killed at least 106 people—a death toll expected to rise, with over 1,000 missing—and caused over $5 billion in damage.
Denise Antolini, a retired University of Hawaii law professor and supporter of the plaintiffs, told The Guardian that the fires affecting the 50th U.S. state “underscore the importance” of climate liability suits, which seek damages from fossil fuel giants.
The Honolulu case calls out the companies for “their introduction of fossil fuel products into the stream of commerce knowing, but failing to warn of, the threats posed to the world’s climate; their wrongful promotion of their fossil fuel products and concealment of known hazards associated with the use of those products; their public deception campaigns designed to obscure the connection between their products and global warming and the environmental, physical, social, and economic consequences flowing from it; and their failure to pursue less hazardous alternatives.”
Antolini said that “if the truth had been known about climate change, if the truth had been allowed to be known by Big Oil, Hawaii might have had a different future,” telling the newspaper that while the climate emergency isn’t the sole cause of this summer’s fires, it “set the table” for the destruction.
Thursday’s hearing before the state Supreme Court “is an incredibly important milestone in the case because it determines whether or not the case will proceed to discovery, to further motions, and to trial,” she added. “So it’s a go or no-go point.”
The high court’s hearing for the Honolulu case is scheduled to begin at 10:00 am local time and will be livestreamed on YouTube.
“The deadly fires in Maui underscore how urgent it is to make polluters pay for fueling the climate crisis,” the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) said Thursday. “The people of Honolulu and Maui deserve their day to put Big Oil on trial.”
As for the Maui case, Emily Sanders, CCI’s editorial lead, wrote for ExxonKnews on Tuesday:
Maui spent years defeating the industry’s numerous attempts to move the case out of state court, where it was originally filed. The county is now awaiting a decision from a judge that could make it the third community—after Honolulu and Massachusetts—to enter the pretrial phase of a climate accountability lawsuit against Big Oil. That means the people of Maui would be one step closer to their rightful day in court to hold fossil fuel companies accountable.
Another ongoing Hawaiian climate case was launched last year by youth from the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu against the Hawaii Department of Transportation and its director, the governor, and the state.
“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, at the time.
Our Children’s Trust also represents youth plaintiffs for a similar constitutional climate case in which a Montana judge on Monday sided with 16 young residents who claimed that the state violated their rights by promoting fossil fuel extraction. Julia Olson, founder of the nonprofit law firm, called the ruling “a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”