Young plaintiffs In Hawai'i. Credit: Elyse Butler for Earthjustice

Youth Activists Push Hawai’i To Accelerate Net Zero Transportation Policies

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Our Children’s Trust is back in the news after the resolution of a climate suit in Hawai’i. The organization is comprised of attorneys who are bringing legal actions against states and the federal government in an attempt to force them to address the crisis of a warming planet in an effective and timely fashion. One of the original supporters of Our Children’s Trust is Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who boldly told the US Congress about the impending climate disaster being caused by burning fossil fuels in 1988. If we had listened to him then, we wouldn’t be in the state of emergency we are now, with record high temperatures causing the deaths of thousands of people.

The first suit brought by Our Children’s Trust attorneys was Juliana vs US, which attempted to establish that the US government has a legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy environment for its citizens. You might think such an idea is self evident, but the case dragged on for nearly a decade before being dismissed recently at the request of the Biden administration. That was a setback for the organization and Earthjustice, its staunch ally in the fight to make governments responsive to the needs of society.

Navahine Vs. Hawai’i

But the Juliana case was not the only legal action undertaken on behalf of young people. Our Children’s Trust and Earthjustice also sued the state of Hawai’i on behalf of several young people in an effort to make decarbonizing the transportation system in that state a higher and more urgent priority. Unlike most states, instead of reacting with a phalanx of litigators dedicated to resisting the lawsuit with every fiber of their being, the government of Hawai’i engaged in good faith negotiations with the young litigants.

As a result, the state and its young citizens were able to reach a consensus and avoid a prolonged trial. In a statement, the office of Hawai’i Governor Josh Green said the settlement agreement, which the court has approved, acknowledges the constitutional rights of Hawai’i’s youth to a life-sustaining climate and confirms the commitment by HDOT to plan and implement transformative changes of Hawai’i’s transportation system to achieve the state’s goal of net-negative emissions by 2045.

“The passion demonstrated by these young people in advocating for a healthy, sustainable future for their generation and those to come, is laudable,” said Governor Green. “This settlement informs how we as a state can best move forward to achieve life-sustaining goals and further, we can surely expect to see these and other youth in Hawaiʻi continue to step up to build the type of future they desire.”

Focus On Transportation Emissions

Navahine v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation is the world’s first youth-led constitutional climate case seeking to address climate pollution from the transportation sector. Thirteen youth from across the Hawaiian Islands brought the case in June 2022, asserting their rights to a safe and healthy climate and asking the Hawaiʻi state government to take action to meet the climate emergency and enable a paradigm shift to a climate-safe, zero emissions transportation system. Many of the Navahine plaintiffs are Native Hawaiian youth who are already experiencing climate change harms to their well being and their ability to perpetuate cultural practices.

The settlement of Navahine is also the first of its kind in which state government entities have decided to work with youth plaintiffs to address concerns regarding constitutional issues arising from climate change and commit to implementing specific plans and programs designed to decarbonize a state transportation system and reduce greenhouse gas pollution and fossil fuel dependence. In this case, Director of Transportation Ed Sniffen took unprecedented leadership to negotiate a resolution and embrace the government’s kuleana (responsibility) to lead the way on bold and broad climate action.

“Climate change is indisputable,” said Sniffen. “Burying our heads in the sand and making it the next generation’s problem is not pono. In our agreement with Our Children’s Trust and Earthjustice we’re committing to develop and use greenhouse gas emission measurements and reductions in vehicle miles traveled when we develop ground transportation projects and look for ways to translate that to our Airports and Harbors projects.”

Collaboration, Not Confrontation

All parties to the agreement applauded the collaborative approach that led to this historic agreement. “Today’s settlement shows that the state and HDOT are truly committed to transformative action to reduce our transportation emissions before it’s too late. This new partnership puts climate action in the fast lane towards a more just and equitable future,” said Leinā‘ala Ley, an attorney with Earthjustice and co-counsel representing Navahine and her 12 fellow youth plaintiffs.

Rylee Brooke K., one of the plaintiffs, said, “Being heard and moving forward in unity with the state to combat climate change is incredibly gratifying, and empowering. This partnership marks a pivotal step towards preserving Hawaiʻi for future generations — one that will have a ripple effect on the world. I hope our case inspires youth to always use their voices to hold leaders accountable for the future they will inherit.”

Pursuant to the agreement between the young activists and the state, Hawai’i officials will prepare a road map “to fully decarbonize the state’s transportation systems, taking all actions necessary to achieve zero emissions no later than 2045 for ground transportation, sea and inter-island air transportation,” Andrea Rodgers, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, said at a press conference with the governor. Michael Gerrard, the faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The Guardian, “This is an extraordinary, unprecedented victory for the youth plaintiffs.”

Hawai’i Finds Being A Climate Leader Is Hard

Officials said the legal settlement brings together activists with all three branches of the state’s government to focus on meeting climate change goals. “We have extremely tough goals to hit by 2045 and this is going to make sure we move forward much faster,” Ed Sniffen, the head of the state’s transportation department said at a press conference.

Hawaii is far from being a laggard when it comes to addressing global heating. In 2015 it became the first US state to require its electric utilities to transition to zero emissions electricity by 2045 — a tall order in a state that has historically obtained most of its energy from oil and coal. The state legislature has also passed a goal of decarbonizing the transportation sector and Hawaii’s 2050 sustainability plan calls to make all state vehicles carbon free by 2035. Despite such pledges and programs, however, between 2020 and 2021 carbon emissions in Hawaii increased by more than 16%. The plaintiffs claimed the department of transportation missed every interim benchmark to reduce emissions since 2008. Hawaii emits more carbon dioxide per capita than 85% of the countries on Earth

The Navahine litigation is part of a series of youth-led constitutional climate cases brought by Our Children’s Trust. Earlier this year, it achieved its first victory when the supreme court of Montana upheld a groundbreaking decision requiring state regulations to consider the climate crisis before approving permits for fossil fuel development. Environmental law experts said that the youth climate lawsuit strategy, which has been ongoing since 2011, has faced an uphill battle in many states. “Until last year’s trial in Montana and today’s settlement in Hawaii, none of them had succeeded,” Gerrard said, noting that both Hawaii and Montana “have a right to a clean environment written into their constitutions.”

The leadership of Josh Green, who became Hawaii’s governor in December 2022, was an important factor in reaching a consensus with the young plaintiffs. “In none of the prior cases was the defendant state government willing to budge an inch, but here the governor embraced the plaintiffs’ claims and agreed to a wide-ranging court order,” Gerrard said. The cooperative nature of the legal agreement, which promises to include young people in advisory roles, and brings together government officials, lawyers, policy makers and teenagers, is also noteworthy. Our Children’s Trust also has pending litigation in Alaska, Florida, Utah and Virginia. A federal lawsuit it filed in December against the US Environmental Protection Agency is also pending

Julia Olson, founder and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, said, “Our courts are essential guardians of children’s constitutional rights and empowered to protect the planet, but they rely on our collective engagement. Navahine youth plaintiffs activated the courts and inspired true democracy in action — all three branches of government committing to work together to do what needs to be done according to best available science, to safeguard their futures. Young people across the country and around the world will follow in their footsteps, carrying the same values of care, defense, and love of the land to action.”

The Takeaway

In contrasts to the collaborative approach adopted by Hawai’i, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin recently announced he is pulling his state out of the clean vehicle program promoted by the California Air Resources Board that seeks to accelerate the adoption of zero emissions cars and trucks. In this election year, Youngkin wants nothing to do with woke, left wing, commie pinko initiatives that might possibly save parts of his state from disappearing under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, not if doing so might limit contributions to his re-election campaign or discourage a disgraced former president from selecting him as his running mate.

As Americans broil under unprecedented heat waves, Repugnicans are doubling down on their support for fossil fuel companies. They seem to believe that naked political power is more important that a sustainable environment. Mother Nature may have the last laugh, however. The Earth cares not one whit what some puffed up politician might have to say. The time is rapidly approaching when the sins of the ruling class will be exposed for all to see.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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