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Maui’s fossil fuel lawsuit can feel like ‘David versus Goliath’

OUR COUNTY

Just a few weeks ago, on Oct. 12,

I was proud to announce that Maui County had filed a lawsuit in state court to hold 20 fossil fuel companies accountable for the staggering costs and dangerous consequences of climate change. The companies that we are suing knew for decades that their products would lead to the very climate change harms we are now seeing and feeling.

 But they didn’t warn anyone about the coming danger. They also didn’t do anything that would have prevented damage to our islands or related costs. Instead, they chose to mount a decadeslong disinformation campaign about the danger that continues to this day just so they could make an extra buck.

 That is why we are seeking relief in state court — to hold them accountable.  Maui County taxpayers should not be stuck paying the costs of surviving the climate danger that these defendants knowingly brought to our shores.

 We know all too well that the climate crisis is here, and it is serious. We are vulnerable to rising sea levels, with four islands and nearly 300 miles of coastline. We see impacts every day with chronic drought and more intense and sustained heat waves turning our open spaces into wildfire tinderboxes. Coastal erosion is worsening, threatening shoreline structures, miles of coastal roads, and vitally important infrastructure.

When we drive between Central and West Maui, we see how rising sea levels could wash away parts of Honoapiilani Highway — now just a stone’s throw away from waves rolling on shore. Storm surge could cut off West Maui from the rest of our island. Other near-shore roads in our county are vulnerable as well.

The county’s fire “season” now runs year-round, rather than only a few months of the year. In 2019, called the “year of fire” on Maui, nearly 26,000 acres burned in the county —  more than six times the total area burned the previous year.

Last year was also the warmest year on record across the county. Kahului alone broke or tied 61 daily record temperatures, leading to threats to human health and the water supply.

The costs to endure and survive these impacts rises into the billions of dollars, which will draw financial resources away from all the demands our citizens already face in these times of economic, social, and healthcare emergencies. 

So, we decided it was time to take a stand. 

The fossil fuel defendants need to pay for the damage they knowingly caused. We are suing some of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world, including Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell. And while it might feel like a “David versus Goliath” battle, we are confident in the rocks we have in our slingshot.

The first rock is evidence. Thanks to investigative reporting from journalists at Columbia Journalism Review, Inside Climate News, and others, documents from the industry’s own archives expose the depths of their knowledge and deception.

The second rock is science, which proves the connection between the burning of defendants’ fossil fuels and the severe impacts of climate change. 

And the third rock is Hawaii law, whose precedents and traditions are well suited to holding corporations accountable when they knowingly harm people and communities.

All of those are described in detail in our lawsuit. It can be found at mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/124390/Maui-County-Climate-Change-Litigation-Complaint

Maui is not alone in this fight. Our neighbors in the City and County of Honolulu have filed a similar lawsuit, and so have dozens of cities, counties, and states across the mainland. We all recognize how unjust it would be to let these defendants deceive consumers in order to maximize their profits, while at the same time avoiding any financial responsibility for the enormous costs of dealing with the impacts caused by their products and their deception.

We expect the defendants and their allies to continue their deception campaign, and to add to it by mischaracterizing our lawsuit and attacking our public officials, all while doing whatever they can to avoid a discussion of the facts, either in public or in front of a jury.

But they can’t avoid accountability forever. Our day in court, and their day of reckoning is coming.

* “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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