Honolulu wants to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate damages. Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Dana Drugmand

Honolulu will join the growing wave of U.S. municipalities that have filed climate liability suits against fossil fuel companies.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Tuesday he intends to file suit against BP, Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, the BHP Group, Marathon and Aloha Petroleum to hold them accountable for climate impacts to the city. The announcement comes just one week after Maui announced it intends to do the same. Both suits are pending approval of other local officials.

The municipalities are seeking to force the fossil fuel companies to help pay for climate adaptation and damage costs. Both suits are expected to allege that the companies knew for decades about the devastating climate consequences of their products and engaged in a tobacco-style campaign to undermine the science and obstruct regulatory policies.   

“The ocean is speaking about the [climate] crisis as we talk,” Caldwell said against a backdrop of overcast skies and rising spray from waves. “For 50 years, Big Oil knew about these impacts. They knew—and then they covered it up.” 

Hawaii is particularly vulnerable to climate impacts such as sea level rise, flooding and severe storms. Over 70 percent of Hawaii’s beaches are in a chronic state of erosion and the island of Oahu has lost nearly 25 percent of its beaches. A category 3 hurricane could inflict $26 billion in damages on Oahu alone and relocation of roads in the state is estimated to cost $15 billion. The state’s tourism industry is also expected to suffer as the sea eats away at Hawaii’s famous beaches. 

“Rising seas, rain bombs, stronger hurricanes, and other consequences of climate change are already threatening Oahu and will impact our fiscal health,” Honolulu city council budget chair Joey Manahan said. “Taxpayers should not have to pay for all the steps we will need to take to protect our roads, beaches, homes, and businesses. That should be on the fossil fuel companies who knowingly caused the damage, and as budget chair I believe we should go to court to make them pay their share.” 

Sixty-eight percent of Hawaiians strongly support making fossil fuel companies pay for climate damages, according to a recent poll. That rises to 71 percent among residents of Honolulu County.

“Oahu taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of this cost,” Manahan said at Tuesday’s press briefing. 

Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, said Honolulu must prepare now.

“California is on fire, the Bahamas were nearly wiped off the map, and Houston has been hit by three 500-year floods in the past three years. It is devastating to find out that Big Oil knew these impacts would occur as far back as the 1960s, and yet they chose to undermine the science and sow confusion instead of becoming responsible corporate citizens,” said Stanbro.

“This lawsuit won’t stop climate change from happening, but it will help pay for the protection and preparation of our citizens as climate disasters continue to come our way.”

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