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Hawaii reaches landmark climate settlement

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Hawaii has announced a landmark settlement with a group of young people who sued the state over climate change. More than a dozen young plaintiffs had argued the state wasn't doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from sources like planes, boats and cars. And on Thursday, the state agreed. It's the first time any state has agreed to settle such a youth-led climate lawsuit. Hawaii Public Radio's Savannah Harriman-Pote reports.

SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE, BYLINE: The state of Hawaii was scheduled to appear in court this coming week to defend itself against a group of young residents demanding more action on climate change. Instead, Governor Josh Green appeared alongside several of those plaintiffs at a press conference Thursday and thanked them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH GREEN: We were sitting over in the conference room, and I was lucky enough to be with the very group that has been suing the crap out of me for the better part of the last couple years. Thank you for that. All right.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Green said the lawsuit had pushed the state to live up to its own commitment to protect the environment. The plaintiffs had argued that that commitment is written into the Hawaii Constitution, and the governor agreed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREEN: You have a constitutional right to fight for life-sustaining climate policy, and you have mobilized our people.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Under the settlement, the state has agreed to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, which is the largest source of climate pollution in Hawaii. It also agreed to create a special council of young people to advise on the process, including some of the plaintiffs. Sixteen-year-old Rylee Brooke Kamahele praised the settlement.

RYLEE BROOKE KAMAHELE: Today is a victory for us, the state and every young person who believes in the power of their voice.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Kamahele is part of a group of young people who first filed a lawsuit in 2022, when they were between the ages of 9 and 18. It's one of dozens of youth-led lawsuits filed in part by the Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children's Trust. But it's the first where state officials have shown a real willingness to work with plaintiffs, says Michael Gerrard. He's the director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

MICHAEL GERRARD: In no other state has the state government, when sued, had done anything other than fight to the hilt.

HARRIMAN-POTE: The Hawaii case shares a key similarity with another successful youth lawsuit in Montana. Last summer, a Montana judge ruled the state must consider climate impacts when issuing permits for fossil fuel projects. Like Hawaii, Montana's constitution protects the right to a, quote, "clean and healthful environment." That language has been crucial, Gerrard says.

GERRARD: Montana and Hawaii are two of the only four or five states that have environmental rights written into their constitutions. The presence of that constitutional right seems to be making all the difference in these cases.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Montana is currently appealing that case. Hawaii is taking a different approach. The state already stands out for its ambitious climate goals. A 2018 law requires Hawaii to bring its carbon emissions essentially to zero over the next two decades. Governor Green, a Democrat, has committed to tackling climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREEN: This is a priority because we know now that climate change is here.

HARRIMAN-POTE: The plaintiffs aren't just taking his word for it. Their attorneys said they'll take the state back to court if the terms of the settlement are not being met. For NPR News, I'm Savannah Harriman-Pote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Savannah Harriman-Pote
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