Honolulu and Maui to Join More Than a Dozen U.S. Communities Suing Fossil Fuel Companies for Climate Change Damages

Hawai’i Counties Latest to Fill Climate Leadership Vacuum Left by Federal Government Inaction

Published Nov 5, 2019

WASHINGTON (November 5, 2019)—The city and county of Honolulu announced plans to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages, just a week after Maui County made a similar announcement. At a press conference today, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell explained how fossil fuel companies made the climate crisis worse by undermining climate science and delaying a transition to clean energy over the last few decades. Pointing to photos of recent flooding across O’ahu, Caldwell noted that sea level rise has already wiped out a quarter of the island’s beaches and will cost residents billions of dollars in property damages and billions more to relocate and rebuild infrastructure.

“At a time when the Trump administration is rapidly retreating from its responsibility to cut climate emissions and ramp up mitigation and adaptation efforts, state and local governments are stepping in to fill the leadership vacuum,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Communities across the country are rightly calling on fossil fuel companies to end their campaigns of climate science denial and delay and help pay the costs of worsening storm surges, extreme rainfall, wildfires and other extreme weather damages.”

Honolulu and Maui counties are the latest to join a growing number of U.S. municipalities seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for knowingly contributing to property damage, public health impacts and climate adaptation costs. Since 2017, the state of Rhode Island, New York City, Baltimore, eight coastal California cities and counties, three Colorado cities and counties, and a Washington county have filed lawsuits to force fossil fuel companies to ensure their residents do not have to cover the entire cost of adapting to and mitigating climate change.

“In Hawai’i, 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 Hawai’i expected to flood by 2100, and that doesn’t include the social costs.”

As lead author of the Hawai’i and Pacific Islands chapter of the Fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment, Keener knows that Hawai’i can expect more damaging climate impacts are in store for the state and region. Cities and states must dramatically increase their resiliency efforts,” she said, “which raises a question: How are Hawaii’s residents and businesses going to bear these costs?”

Nearly 70 percent of Hawai’i adults say fossil fuel companies should pay for some portion of global warming damages, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communications and commissioned by UCS and cited by Honolulu City Councilmember and Chair of the Budget Committee Joey Manahan during the press conference. The Yale program polled 5,131 adults from November 2018 to January 2019 and used a geographic and statistical model developed by its team of scientists to downscale public opinion results to the state, congressional district and county levels, which are searchable through this interactive map.

The survey found:

  • Sixty-eight percent of Hawai’i state residents believe fossil fuel companies have either “a great deal” or “a moderate” amount of responsibility for the damages caused by global warming.
  • Roughly the same percentage—69 percent—support making fossil fuel companies pay for a portion of the damages to local communities caused by carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels.
  • Support for fossil fuel companies paying climate damages is high among residents of all four counties in the state.
  • Sixty-four percent of O’ahu adults—and 63 percent of adults across Hawai’i state—support local lawsuits to force fossil fuel companies to pay a portion of damages in their community.

Lawsuits by Rhode Island, Boulder County and Baltimore have survived multiple attempts by ExxonMobil and other defendants to convince courts to dismiss the cases on procedural grounds or to move them to a federal court where fossil fuel companies are more likely to prevail.