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Hawaii reaches settlement with youth who sued over climate change

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Thirteen children and teens in Hawaii took the state government to court over the threat posed by climate change. Now they're celebrating a settlement that emphasizes a plan to decarbonize Hawaii's transportation system in the next 20 years.

It's the latest example of frustrated youth in the United States taking their climate concerns into the courtroom.

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

The youths in the suit had argued that Hawaii was violating the state constitution by operating a transportation system that harms the climate and infringes upon the right to a clean and healthy environment. More specifically, they accused the Hawaii Department of Transportation of consistently prioritizing building highways over other types of transportation.

The burning of fossil fuels —oil, gas and coal— is the main contributor to global warming caused by human activity. Hawaii is the state most dependent in the U.S. on petroleum for its energy needs, according to Our Children's Trust.

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," Director of Transportation Ed Sniffen said in the governor's statement. "Burying our heads in the sand and making it the next generation's problem is not pono," or not right.

Personal frustrations led to the 2022 lawsuit, along with a larger sense of activism that has driven youth climate movements around the world.

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. However, extreme droughts and heavy rains caused by climate change have reduced crop yields and threatened her ability to continue the cultural practice.

The complaint said that rising sea levels also threatened to put their lands underwater.

The settlement's provisions include the establishment of a greenhouse gas reduction plan within one year of the agreement that sets out a road map to decarbonize Hawaii's transportation system in the next 20 years.

Provisions also include "immediate, ambitious investments in clean transportation infrastructure" such as completing the pedestrian and bicycle networks within five years, and dedicating at least $40 million to expanding the public electric vehicle charging network by 2030.

A volunteer youth council will advise the Department of Transportation.

The plaintiffs said they found some hope in the settlement.

"Being heard and moving forward in unity with the state to combat climate change is incredibly gratifying, and empowering," one plaintiff, identified as Rylee Brooke K., said in a statement.

Elsewhere, youths' efforts to press the state or federal government have been mixed.

The city of Honolulu filed two lawsuits against major oil and gas companies accusing them of engaging in a deceptive campaign and misleading the public about the dangers of their fossil fuel products and the environmental impacts. The oil companies have appealed to the Supreme Court in an attempt to halt the lawsuits from going forward.

In May, a federal appeals court panel rejected a long-running lawsuit brought by young Oregon-based climate activists who argued that the U.S. government's role in climate change violated their constitutional rights.

Early this year, the state Supreme Court in Montana 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. That case was filed by youth plaintiffs. Oral arguments before the Montana Supreme Court are set for July 10.

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