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Hawaii promises to curb pollution from transport after young activists win climate lawsuit

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on 15 December 2023.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on 15 December 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File
Copyright AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File
By Angela Symons with AP
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Youth activists are forcing Hawaii to clean up its transport sector.


Youth climate activists have won a "historic" settlement in Hawaii.

The lawsuit was the world's first youth-led constitutional climate case seeking to address climate pollution from the transportation sector.

It alleged that the US state violated the constitution by operating a transport system that harmed the climate and infringed upon the children's right to a clean and healthy environment.

The activists asked the state government to take action and shift to a climate-safe, zero-emissions transportation system.

Hawaii's governor and lawyers for the youth plaintiffs announced that the case was settled on Thursday.

Hawaii promises 'transformative changes' to cut emissions

The settlement reached in Navahine v. Hawaii Department of Transportation recognises children’s constitutional rights to a life-sustaining climate, Governor Josh Green and attorneys at the public interest law firms Our Children's Trust and Earthjustice said in separate statements.

The agreement confirms the department's commitment to plan and implement "transformative changes" to reach the state’s goal of net-negative emissions by 2045, the governor said.

"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 Hawaii continue to step up to build the type of future they desire," he added.

The parties said the settlement was the first between a state government and youth plaintiffs to address constitutional issues arising from climate change.

“Climate change is indisputable,” said Director of Transportation Ed Sniffen. “Burying our heads in the sand and making it the next generation’s problem is not pono" - meaning 'righteous' in Hawaiian.

"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 travelled when we develop ground transportation projects and look for ways to translate that to our airports and harbours projects."

Hawaii government accused of prioritising highways over green transport

The 13 plaintiffs were aged nine through 18 at the time the lawsuit was filed in June 2022. Their complaint said the department consistently prioritised building highways over other types of transportation.

The lawsuit said one plaintiff, a 14-year-old Native Hawaiian raised in Kaneohe, was from a family that has farmed taro for more than 10 generations. But extreme droughts and heavy rains caused by climate change reduced crop yields and threatened her ability to continue this cultural practice.

Rising sea levels also threatened to put their lands underwater, the complaint said.

“I am so proud of all the hard work to get us to this historic moment," said lead plaintiff Navahine F of the settlement agreement. "We got what we came for, and we got it faster than we expected. Mai kuhihewa young people have the power to make a difference for their futures."

In Montana, the state Supreme Court earlier this year declined a request by the state to block the landmark climate ruling that said regulators must consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions when issuing permits for fossil fuel development while its appeal was pending. Oral arguments on the case before the Montana Supreme Court are set for 10 July. That case also was filed by youth plaintiffs.

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