Honolulu to Fossil Fuel Companies: Pay Up

Waikiki Beach, in Honolulu, is disappearing. (Photo by Kat Wade/Getty Images)

By Amy Westervelt

On Monday, the city and county of Honolulu filed suit against some of the world’s top fossil fuel producers for their role in both contributing to climate change and delaying action on it.

Honolulu aims to hold Aloha Petroleum, BHP Group, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, and Shell liable for a portion of the billions of dollars the city and county will need to spend in coming years to adapt to rising seas, hotter temperatures, and other effects of climate change, as well as to shift from fossil fuels to low- or no-carbon energy sources.

“Folks in an island community can see the impacts of climate change happening. We are going to be hit first and worst,” said Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer and executive director of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. “Folks that tend to be grounded and live in a particular place for a long period of time, they can see the change over their lifetime,” he said. "They can see the warming ocean, and they can see the drier mountains when they go up and go hunting.”

Kathryn Henski, a member of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, foresees “horrendous” destruction ahead for Honolulu as warmer ocean waters lead to more devastating hurricanes, unless the city and county build new protections. “This island is not prepared for what's going to happen in the midst of a hurricane,” she said. “There is no high ground unless we go out to the mountains and what's there? There are no safe shelters.”

Waikiki hurricane prep. (Photo by Kat Wade/Getty Images)

Henski would know: Before moving to Honolulu, she rode out 2008’s Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, as well as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Since relocating, Henski made two unsuccessful bids for the Hawaii state house in 2016 in 2018, on the Republican ticket, and has since gotten involved in local politics in Honolulu. According to Henski, sea level rise is already eating up land in her Waikiki Beach neighborhood.

Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the city’s intention to sue the oil giants in November, just two days after the County of Maui announced that it planned to file a similar suit. Now that Honolulu has gone to court, Maui is likely to file its case as well.

Nearly 70 percent of adult Hawaii residents say fossil fuel companies should pay for some portion of what it will cost to adapt to global warming, according to a 2019 survey by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communications and commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

None of the oil company defendants responded to requests for comment, but in a statement about the filing, Phil Goldberg, Special Counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, a project of the National Association of Manufacturers, said, “Honolulu’s decision to move forward with litigation ignores the reality that these lawsuits have nothing to do with fighting climate change and will lead only to increased costs for local residents.”

According to Stanbro, it’s the climate change impacts, and the delayed response to acting on climate change, that are already costing Honolulu residents. “In an entirely just world the folks who profit would pay,” he said of the defendants. “Right now the onus is falling on taxpayers. All of the recovery from the hurricanes we've been hit with, all of the recovery from the flooding, all of the patchwork of defensive moves we're doing is coming out of just the general operating budget of our parks department and our department of facility maintenance and the normal departments that are tasked with just keeping the lights on and keeping buses moving on time.”

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