The world’s largest oil companies have cost Hawaii’s future dearly. And we need to sue them for damages. (“Honolulu To Fossil Fuel Companies: Pay For Our Climate Change Damages,” Nov. 5.)

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Back in 1977, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured atmospheric carbon dioxide at 332 parts per million.

Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, has determined that 350 ppm is the highest level of CO2 that will preserve conditions for the life we know on Earth.

In the 1970s, Shell and BP begin funding scientific research to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases. Between 1978 and 1983, Exxon monitored CO2 concentrations in the air and ocean. In 1981 it found that “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population).”

These companies could have changed course toward producing renewable energy. They could have applied their research and resources to adapt in various ways.

Exxon had developed a prototype hybrid car in the late 1970s, and researched lithium batteries and superconductivity.

But instead of that route, and knowing well what they would cause, they chose to do three things. First, they would focus on oil.

The author blames fossil fuel producers for many climate change impacts, including the death of coral reefs around Hawaii.

Peter Swarzenski/USGS.

Second, they would fortify their equipment against rising seas, warming temperatures, increasing storm severity and thawing permafrost, so that, while others would feel the effects of climate change, they would not.

Finally, the industry would launch a disinformation campaign to sow doubt about climate change, its causes, and its effects. The campaign spread bogus science and deceit through traditional media, think tank “research,” ads from industry front groups and, eventually, social media.

Rising Temperatures

Fossil fuel companies also spent lavishly to elect members of Congress who would not only protect the industry and its decisions, but magnify its subsidies immensely.

For decades, Congress has subsidized the fossil fuel industry. This, as renewable energy, without subsidies, is already cheaper than fossil fuels.

In May, Mauna Loa measured CO2 at 415 ppm. But have the industry’s actions affected Hawaii?

Honolulu’s annual trade wind days have fallen from 291 in the late 1970s to 210 in 2019. The state has tied or set over 225 record high temperatures since April.

Between 1950 and 1980, 71% of the years in Hawaii had below average temperatures. Since then, 77% have had above average temperatures.

Since the 1950s, Pacific region ocean temperatures have risen by as much as 3.6 degrees F. Higher water temperatures can kill (bleach) coral.

Hawaii’s first large-scale coral bleaching occurred in 1996. More followed in 2002, 2004, 2014 and 2015. Coral reef cover around the Pacific Islands is projected to decline from about 40% to 15% — 30% by 2035 and 10% to 20% by 2050, a tremendous loss for both sea life and humans.

And future costs to Hawaii taxpayers? Sea level rise alone will cost $15 billion in public road relocations and $19 billion in private property damage. Chronic flooding of roads, utilities and other public infrastructure may cost $190 billion.

No one has yet tried to price more and stronger hurricanes, hamstrung tourism, beach loss, increased disease, water shortages, other damaged infrastructure, heatwaves, decreased trade winds, drought, heavy rain with flooding, contaminated drinking water, endangered fisheries, stressed native species, increased invasive species, or declining crop production, all current or likely effects of climate change in Hawaii.

No amount of money will ever replace Waikiki. No amount can ever restore our precious weather, heal our fisheries, revive lost native species, replace our fresh water, or reverse pest invasions. Commensurate punitive damages would far exceed all of the fossil fuel industry’s unimaginable wealth. From 1978 to 2013, for example, Exxon’s annual profit skyrocketed from $2.4 billion to $32.6 billion.

Its platoon of lawyers has unceasingly denied responsibility and remorselessly disputed any call for compensation. Its website says, “ExxonMobil is committed and actively working to reduce the risks posed by climate change.”

Oil companies knew the future and made it happen. Their legacy will be in two parts. One is helping to transport us for a century. But the savage, damning, and far longer sequel will be untold centuries of devastating sea level rise, endless wildfires, lethal heatwaves, record hurricanes, decimated oceans, extinct species, ruinous floods and droughts, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

From 1978 to 2013, Exxon’s annual profit skyrocketed from $2.4 billion to $32.6 billion.

The fossil fuel industry’s financial cost alone to Hawaii is beyond calculation. So Hawaii must sue, to recoup what expenses we can. And appropriate, righteous punitive damages should leave them just enough resources to convert their fossil fuel operations to renewables, retrain their employees for that work, convert all their gas stations for electric vehicles, and provide billions so their customers can replace their gas cars with EVs.

The sins of Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell are especially notable, but there is plenty of blame to share. Attribution science finds that 90 companies have caused nearly two-thirds of the world’s industrial emissions.

Attribution scientists have analyzed all carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution and can calculate how much can be attributed to individual fossil fuel corporations. Current suits in Massachusetts, New York State, Rhode Island, 11 local governments, France, India and the Netherlands will help distribute responsibility equitably.

Fossil fuel corporations must be held liable, conclude their life-destroying ways immediately, and compensate Hawaii and the world for the astronomical costs they have burdened us with — not just financial, but environmental, generational, psychological, social, and cultural.

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