As the ocean gobbles up more of Oahu’s shoreline and hurricanes pose greater threats to residents and property, Honolulu officials announced they want to hold accountable the fossil fuel companies they blame for the island’s climate change woes.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Tuesday that he wants to sue companies like Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil to force them to pay for “climate crisis-related costs.”

“We’re struggling with providing more housing at an affordable level, and we’re going to be losing homes,” Caldwell said. “They need to pay just like Big Tobacco needed to pay.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell announces lawsuit against large petroleum companies seeking damages for climate change at Waikiki Beach today.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell is working with City Council members Joey Manahan, left, and Ron Menor, second from the right, on a lawsuit against companies he says worsen climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The city plans to argue that “big oil” misled the public and “waged a decades-long deception campaign” to evade responsibility for exacerbating climate change, the effects of which will touch every aspect of life in Hawaii.

On Oahu, 3.2 feet of sea level rise will impact 3,880 structures and 13,300 residents and cause $12.9 billion dollars in property damage and losses, according to a 2017 Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report. Between 10 and 15% of the state’s highway system will be affected by rising seas, costing the state at least $15 billion, a state coastal highway program report found.

If Hawaii were hit with a Category 1 hurricane, more than 20,000 residents would need short or long-term shelter, according to an engineering report cited by the city. A Category 3 storm would cause estimated losses exceeding $26 billion for Oahu alone, the city said.

In Waikiki, a Category 4 hurricane would result in over $30 billion in economic losses and structural damage, a 2010 state multi-hazard mitigation plan stated.

Officials did not say on Tuesday exactly how much money they hope to win in damages.

Caldwell is seeking City Council approval to hire Sher Edling LLP, a San Francisco firm that has filed several similar suits on the mainland. The attorneys would be hired on a contingency basis, city officials said, so they would make money only if the city wins its case.

The City Council will discuss the resolution at a public hearing on Tuesday at 1 p.m. The resolution says the defendants in the lawsuit would be Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, the BHP Group, ConocoPhillips, Marathon (formerly Tesoro) and Aloha Petroleum.

The news in Honolulu follows an announcement by Maui Mayor Michael Victorino that Maui County also plans to sue fossil fuel companies. A dozen other jurisdictions throughout the country have similar cases pending, the city said, including government agencies in Rhode Island, Colorado and Maryland.

All the suits intend to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for producing, promoting and selling products that “their own scientists and experts warned could impose ‘severe’ or even ‘catastrophic’ consequences,” Honolulu officials said. As a result, the plaintiffs argue, the companies profited. Exxon alone has raked in $500 billion in profits since 2000, according to the city.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Sierra Club expressed support for the city’s effort.

“We lost decades of valuable time to adopt sound climate policies because of the climate denialism fueled by Big Oil,” Executive Director Marti Townsend wrote in an email.

Lawsuits should be part of a larger strategy to combat climate change, Townsend said.

“We need to continue our transition to clean energy sources and hyper energy-efficient appliances,” she said. “But even if we make every change possible right now, there are climate impacts already baked into our planetary system that we now have to prepare for – and that costs money.  Money that should come from the fossil fuel industry’s profits, not regular taxpayers.”

The city plans to sue in Hawaii Circuit Court, where officials believe they would have greater chances of success than in federal court.

What stories will you help make possible?

Since 2010, Civil Beat’s reporting has painted a more complete picture of Hawaii — stories that you won’t find anywhere else.

Your donation, however big or small, will ensure that Civil Beat has the resources to provide you with thorough, unbiased reporting on the issues that matter most to Hawaii. We can’t do this without you.


About the Author