Maui County intends to take legal action against fossil fuel companies


This week, I announced Maui County’s intention to take legal action against fossil fuel companies for the escalating impacts and costs of climate change and rising sea levels.

The next step is to seek Maui County Council approval to hire special counsel.

Together, we will hold the fossil fuel industry responsible for wide-ranging, ever-more-apparent impacts of climate change.

You’ve seen increasing erosion of our coastline. A long stretch of Honoapiilani Highway from Papalaua State Wayside Park to the Pali side of the Lahaina bypass is a stone’s throw away from the ocean. Loss of a portion of that highway would effectively cut off West Maui from the rest of our island.

Roadways, parks, infrastructure and buildings hug the coastline and are similarly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Science shows that global warming is man-made, caused primarily by air pollution from carbon dioxide and methane, the exhaust from burning oil, gas and coal. Peer-reviewed science shows sea level rise accelerating. Now is the time for coastal communities to act.

Our Department of Planning is working on rule changes for a managed retreat to protect our communities from the impacts of rising sea levels. County departments, especially parks, public works and environmental management, must address rising sea levels in planning future infrastructure.

The University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program reports widespread impacts by an anticipated sea level rise of 3.2 feet. Damage in West Maui alone is estimated at $1.9 billion, without even accounting the devastating ripple effect to our economy. Resorts, hotels and other businesses in West and South Maui are economic powerhouses, along with providing thousands of jobs.

The impacts go beyond rising sea levels. In the past 30 years, rainfall in the Hawaiian islands has declined, with widely varying weather patterns. Droughts swing to periods of intense, heavy rains and flash flooding, harming property, roads, infrastructure, while causing sediment to flow into the ocean, smothering the reef.

Hot, dry weather creates tinder-box brush conditions. So far this year, brush fires have burned 23,000 acres, or nearly six times more area than the 4,000 acres scorched by fires in Maui County in all of 2018.

A decrease in northeasterly trade winds has been recorded in Hawaii over the last 40 years. This changing weather pattern risks our surface water collection systems. Water ditches in East Maui and reservoirs Upcountry depend on prevailing northeasterly trades carrying rainfall to windward areas.

Warmer ocean waters bring more frequent and intense hurricanes. Last year’s brushes with hurricanes Lane and Olivia may be only a taste of what’s to come.

So, why target the fossil fuel industry?

For almost 50 years, the fossil fuel companies knew that carbon dioxide pollution would warm the air and oceans and cause sea levels to rise. In 1968, the American Petroleum Institute confirmed the role of fossil fuels in heating the Earth, foreseeably leading to “severe” environmental damage. While they used this knowledge to protect their own assets, they kept these secrets from the public while taking in billions in profits.

Our residents and businesses should not be left to pay the staggering costs of addressing the impacts of climate change.

Similar lawsuits have been filed by other coastal municipalities. While some might call it a David and Goliath match-up, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the right time to do it.

You might recall the early lawsuits against Big Tobacco. As with oil, gas and coal, tobacco products were legal, important to the economy, and even encouraged and subsidized by the government. Just like the fossil fuel companies, tobacco companies knew their products — used as intended — would harm both the users and third parties who didn’t use them. State and local governments were injured by, among other things, higher health costs.

Instead of warning people about the dangers of their products, the tobacco industry conducted a decades-long campaign of deceit, distraction and delay. Tobacco companies were ultimately held accountable. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to hold fossil fuel companies accountable as well.

I humbly ask my colleagues in the County Council to take action for future generations.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Saturdays of the month.


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