Opinion: Did Hawaii just pave the way for court enforcement of California’s climate pledges?

This week, 13 young Hawaiian plaintiffs filed to take the state’s Department of Transportation to trial for failing to make real progress in reducing global-warming pollution. Instead, on the eve of their court date, the young men signed a groundbreaking agreement with Hawaii’s governor and launched a new phase of climate litigation.

The resulting agreement will accelerate Hawaii’s progress toward a zero-emission transportation system and could serve as a roadmap for other advocates seeking to gain ground on urgent climate goals.

Several states — including Alaska, Florida, Utah and Virginia — face similar lawsuits from young people over their alleged failures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike their red-state counterparts, officials in blue-ocean Hawaii have tried to lead on the climate. They have drafted ambitious laws to mitigate climate change, setting long-term targets for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

In addition to the statewide 2045 carbon neutrality goal, the state legislature adopted a 2030 emissions reduction goal and specifically aimed to decarbonize the transportation sector, Hawaii’s largest source of climate emissions. The state’s 2050 sustainability plan promises a transition of the entire state fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

But ensuring the implementation of such promises is difficult – and made much more difficult by the lack of intermediate objectives on the way to the long-range goals. The plaintiffs in Hawaii argued that state officials have ignored their goals by failing to take meaningful steps to reduce climate emissions from transportation sources. They claimed the state thereby violated its constitutional duty to protect natural resources from climate change and disasters like last year’s unprecedented Maui wildfires. Their lawsuit alleged that the defendants “violated and violated the young plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthy environment, including the right to a sustainable climate system.”

In this way, the lawsuit in Hawaii focused not on the wholesale failure to enact meaningful climate policies, but on sharp questions about follow-up. The issue at trial would not be whether officials made good laws, but what happened after they did. In an era of sweeping climate pledges in liberal-leaning states like California, New York and Hawaii, it’s a deep and important question.

outcome solution answers that question by providing benchmarks for a plan to reduce greenhouse gases that will be overseen and enforced by a court until 2045 or until Hawaii reaches its zero-emissions goal, “whichever is sooner.”

According to the agreement, the state must set interim decarbonization targets for the transport sector in 2030, 2035 and 2040; report annually on its progress towards these objectives; reforming the Department of Transportation’s planning and budgeting elements to align them with the state’s climate goals; and spend millions of dollars in the short term on low-carbon infrastructure like electric vehicle charging stations and bike lanes. The deal also creates new leadership positions within the department tasked with tackling climate change.

The settlement is far from a remedy. For example, she saves for another day the question of exactly how ambitious Hawaii’s interim decarbonization targets should be.

However, the deal is on its own in several ways. First, it “shows other governments the benefits of working with young people, not against them,” said Andrea Rodgers of Our Children’s Trust, one of the public interest law firms that represented the plaintiffs. “This is the first time a government has decided to do this.”

As their lawsuit noted, the plaintiffs — surfers, divers, spear fishermen and regenerative farmers among them — have suffered from climate anxiety, the disruption of traditional ways of life and, in some cases, the destruction of their homes. Without even setting foot in court, they more or less won the measure of justice they were looking for.

By deciding to settle with the youth rather than go to trial, Hawaii Governor Josh Green (yes, Green is his real name!) set a higher bar for what can be achieved by a state leader who takes climate change and its consequences seriously. It is a dramatic contrast to climate change deniers such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The result also provides a template for others seeking to ensure that climate promises are delivered. This can be hard work. As the Hawaii government asserted before the settlement, long-term climate goals provide little leverage for today’s litigants. A 2045 carbon neutrality target, for example, creates a number of challenges by failing to specify which sectors must reduce emissions, by how much and by what dates. But the big question of how to ensure long-term climate goals have teeth could not be more important.

Democratic-controlled states like California have acted as climate policy bellwethers in part by adopting ambitious climate goals. We now have an example of how to turn such lofty promises into court-enforced action to decarbonize a vitally important sector.

This case serves as a powerful endorsement of the courts’ capacity to address climate change. Many defendants facing climate lawsuits — notably including Hawaii officials in earlier stages of the case — often protest that climate change policy should be made by legislatures, not judges. This landmark settlement shows that courts can hold decision makers accountable if they fail to deliver on their promises.

Cara Horowitz is the executive director of the Emmett Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. Evan George is the institute’s communications director.

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Image Source : www.latimes.com

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