This Hawaii City has the Most Important Climate Case in the United States

After a decision from the Hawai’i Supreme Court, the City and County of Honolulu’s climate lawsuit is now set to be the first of its kind to go to trial. If successful, the suit could make oil and gas companies pay billions of dollars in damages for misleading the public about the role their products play in climate change. Legal experts say that Honolulu’s case could be used as a model for similar climate lawsuits to be filed by dozens of towns across the U.S. This would also be the first time in history that fossil fuel companies would have to face proof in court of a decades-long campaign of climate deception by the industry.

The unanimous decision, written by Hawai’i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald, supported a lower court decision that didn’t agree with two of the oil companies’ main points when they tried to get the case thrown out. Now that the court made its decision, the case can move on to full discovery. This is part of the process where plaintiffs can gather more evidence to support their case, and a state court can finally set a date for the trial.

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“This is now the most important climate case in the United States,” says Michael Wilson, a former justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court who left earlier this year after ten years on the court. “Now the Hawai’i Supreme Court has let a jury of 12 Hawai’i residents decide if the oil companies’ lies caused billion-dollar damage to our county and city of Honolulu.”

In their case, the city and county say that ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and other big oil companies planned “sophisticated disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on the science, causes, and effects of global warming,” which kept people from taking action on climate change for decades. The complaint says the companies broke state laws such as public nuisance, failure to warn, and trespass. It also says that because of their actions, Honolulu has had to deal with floods, storms, heat waves, wildfires, rising seas, and other climate disasters that have cost billions of dollars to fix and rebuild. Plaintiffs now say that Big Oil should help pay for the damage.

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There have been strong objections from the oil and gas business to the case. They first tried to get it moved out of state court and then filed motions to have the case thrown out completely when that failed. A pro-fossil fuel group even used right-wing media to spread false information about the state’s Republican-appointed Chief Justice, Recktenwald. They said he was biased because he gave a talk through the nonprofit Environmental Law Institute that was meant to “educate fellow judges about the basic science they need to adjudicate the climate litigation over which they preside.” A lawyer for an oil company is also active in ELI. This lawyer is working on Honolulu’s case. Some law professors said the attack on Recktenwald was “thin air.”

Nearly 100 people died in the devastating wildfires on Maui in August. Maui has also filed a lawsuit that is very similar to Honolulu’s and is moving through state courts. In September, Hawaii’s Supreme Court heard Big Oil’s reasons to throw out Honolulu’s case. The companies said that state law couldn’t deal with climate change on a world scale and that Honolulu’s claims under the Clean Air Act were overruled by federal law.

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