The unfortunate reality is climate change has reached the point of crisis. Hawaii taxpayers are already being forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the impacts of climate change on our islands.

From mitigating the destruction caused by more frequent and severe weather events such as extreme flooding on the north shore of Kauai, to protecting against sea level rise and erosion undermining our coastal roads and beaches, costs are going up. Hawaii’s Climate Commission has identified over $19 billion in losses to coastal infrastructure in the years to come, and we are going to need to find a way to pay for it.

We lost decades of valuable time in the effort to prevent this situation because the fossil fuel industry engaged in a 40-year campaign of deception to manufacture false-doubt around climate change, and passing the costs of those impacts on to taxpayers. These companies made billions of dollars blocking reasonable solutions to the extremely dangerous, and completely preventable problem of climate change.

Now we must take drastic and even unpopular steps to make up for this lost time. It will cost billions to quickly prepare our island communities for the dangerous changes already upon us, and to fundamentally alter our electrical and transportation systems in order to prevent the worst impacts from taking hold.

Who should pay for these climate-related expenses?

Kualoa Beach Park erosion as waves lap up against the grassy area.
Coastal erosion, seen here at Kualoa Beach Park in October, will cost Hawaii billions of dollars. Fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for the damages. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It is true that at some level we all share some responsibility for climate change. And we should all do our part to reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible.

But the solution to the climate crisis is not found solely in personal choices at the cash register. Large fossil fuel companies, like Exxon, have a significant responsibility to bear here. Exxon scientists knew before anyone else did that burning fossil fuels causes climate change and that if allowed to endure would trigger a climate “catastrophe.”

Exxon and its fellow fossil fuel companies did not warn customers or expedite their transition to renewable energy sources, like they should have. Instead they doubled-down on fossil fuels and misled customers, shareholders, and lawmakers.

Bad Actors

That is why we support holding bad actors in the fossil fuel industry accountable for their contribution to the climate crisis. Rhode Island and more than a dozen counties throughout the U.S. have sued major fossil fuel companies for deceptive business practices. Baltimore’s case recently moved to the discovery phase after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the fossil fuel industry’s appeal.

Similarly, New York and Massachusetts are pursuing fossil fuel companies for investor fraud because industry leaders did not give investors the whole truth. While telling investors climate change was not a concern, fossil fuel companies retrofitted their own oil rigs and mining operations to protect these investments from the threats of climate change.

Hawaii should file similar cases against fossil fuel companies for similar claims. This not only helps to protect against deceptive business practices here in the future, but also provides a needed source of funding for climate-related costs that are now more expensive due directly to the delay caused by the industry’s deception.

We have a strong track record of success in Hawaii for these types of cases. The tobacco and pharmaceutical companies engaged in very similar deceptive and misleading media campaigns to keep people hooked on their products. This sparked public health crises throughout the U.S. that required massive public spending to address.

Hawaii worked with many other states and counties to bring strong cases in court against these companies. As a result, we now have dedicated funds for addressing the public health issues related to tobacco use, and a similar settlement is expected with pharmaceutical companies.

Honolulu and Maui counties are on the right track pursuing these cases against the fossil fuel company giants that obstructed reasonable climate policies long enough to turn the problem of climate change into a full blown crisis. We urge the other counties and the state attorney general to join in these cases as well. There is no reason Hawaii’s taxpayers should be solely responsible for the expenses related to mitigating and adapting to rapid changes in our climate.

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