The words were strikingly prescient: Because of climate change, lush and verdant Maui was facing wildfires of “increased frequency, intensity, and destructive force.”
They appeared in a 2020 lawsuit filed by Maui County seeking damages from Exxon, Chevron and other giant oil and gas companies, accusing them of a “coordinated, multifront effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge” that the burning of fossil fuels would heat the planet to dangerous extremes.
Now, after wildfires driven by conditions linked to climate change have devastated the Hawaiian island, the lawsuit carries renewed heft.
The Maui fires “are clear and concrete evidence of something that otherwise might seem and feel abstract” that could “greatly strengthen” Maui’s case, said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard who has written about climate change disinformation.
But, she cautioned, “for decades, the fossil fuel industry has worked to undermine scientific understanding of climate change and its damaging effects. One way they have done this, repeatedly, is by questioning the link between climate change, in general, and specific damaging consequences.”
Ryan Meyers, senior vice president and general counsel at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobby group, called the Maui wildfires a tragedy, but stressed that their immediate cause was still under investigation.
He called the litigation brought by Maui part of a “coordinated campaign to wage meritless lawsuits against our industry,” and “nothing more than a distraction from important issues and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources.”
Maui is among more than two dozen states and municipalities, including Honolulu, about 100 miles from Maui, that are suing fossil fuel companies for climate damages.
This week, a group of youths in Montana won a landmark lawsuit after a judge ruled that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional.
And while lawsuits like the one filed by Maui have been delayed by procedural issues, the fires could be an important part of the county’s claim for damages should the case go to trial, legal experts said. Maui’s arguments are also likely to resonate with a local jury.
“Here in Hawaii, folks are in disaster recovery mode, and the longer arc of something like a lawsuit necessarily has to take a back seat,” said Richard Wallsgrove, law professor and adviser to the Environmental Law Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But it’s also clear that what’s at stake in these cases, and all the climate litigation cases that are brewing in Hawaii and elsewhere, is seen right there in the Maui wildfires.”
Scientists are increasingly able to attribute specific disasters, like extreme weather or wildfires, to global warming, and even tie events to fossil fuel producers. And while that attribution can take time, scientists have pointed to Hawaii’s declining average rainfall as well as drought, hurricane winds and other conditions linked to climate change as factors that fueled the Maui fire.
At the same time, academic and congressional researchers, environmental groups, journalists, and lawyers have chronicled how oil and gas companies, despite knowing for decades that burning fossil fuels would dangerously heat the planet, have worked to downplay or deny that knowledge.
The fossil fuel industry has tried to move the Maui and other climate cases to federal court, where it hoped for better outcomes. But in May the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a group of petitions asking it to take the lawsuits out of state court.
The industry has also argued that the plaintiffs’ claims relate to a global issue and amount to a demand for stricter regulation of fossil fuel emissions, both of which lie beyond any court’s purview. “Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system,” said Mr. Meyers of the oil industry group.
At a state Supreme Court hearing on Thursday in the case brought by Honolulu, oil companies repeated many of those arguments and urged the judges to dismiss the claims.
The session opened with a moment of silence for those who died in the Maui fire.
“This case presents important questions,” said Theodore J. Boutros, Jr., an attorney representing the oil companies, “regarding whether plaintiffs can invoke state law to bring tort claims to address injuries they allege are caused by global greenhouse gas emissions.” “We respectfully submit that the answer is no,” he said. In fact, the plaintiffs were “seeking to impose damages based on the actions of millions and billions of people around the world,” he added.
Victor M. Sher, representing Maui, pushed back against the notion that multinational corporations were exempt from local laws.
Under U.S. law, which places primary authority on states to protect its citizens, “both out-of-state and even international actors that cause harm within individual states can be held accountable under that state’s tort law,” he said.
Karen Sokol, professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said that the oil companies were “trying to frame these cases as frivolous suits that are seeking to address climate change” using Hawaii state law.
“That’s part of the industry strategy,” she said. “They’re telling the courts: ‘You can’t handle this. It’s too big for you.’”
In its 2020 complaint, Maui said oil companies sought to “discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt” in the minds of the public. The companies “have promoted and profited from a massive increase” in the production and use of coal, oil, and natural gas, all driving global warming, it said.
In Exxon’s case, the county pointed to the substantial amounts the company spent on radio, television, and outdoor advertisements in Hawaii over the past 25 years to market its oil and gas products.
“These advertisements contained no warning” of the climate risks of burning fossil fuels, Maui charges. These advertisements also contained false or misleading statements “obfuscating the connection between Exxon’s fossil fuel products and climate change,” and misrepresented Exxon and its products as environmentally friendly, the complaint said.
Exxon declined to comment.
In its complaint, Maui County said it has suffered, and will continue to suffer, severe harms and losses, including direct impacts on public health, decreased tax revenue from tourism and increased costs of adapting to a warmer climate.
“Wildfires are becoming more frequent, intense, and destructive in the county,” the complaint said. “The County’s fire ‘season’ now runs year-round, rather than only a few months of the year.”
Even as local governments in Hawaii seek damages from oil and gas companies, the state of Hawaii is itself being held to account over its climate policy.
A group of youths sued the island state’s Department of Transportation last year, accusing it of shirking its duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and of violating their constitutional rights to a clean environment.
By promoting and funding highway projects that lead to more traffic, fuel use and planet-warming emissions, the department has hurt the ability of young people to “live healthful lives in Hawaii now and into the future,” they said.
Maui officials had no immediate comment. The Hawaii Department of Transportation said it did not comment on active litigation.