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Hawai’i young people suing for the climate
A group of young people in Hawai’i who are suing the government for violating their right to a clean and healthful environment.Elyse Butler for Earthjustice

The young people suing their governments over the climate crisis

We speak with a Hawaiian activist who, along with 14 other young people, are taking the fight for climate justice to the courts. Could this strategy be the solution that we need?

What does it mean to have a “right” to something? We have a right to housing, according to the United Nations, but sadly that doesn’t mean we can sue our landlords when they evict us or force the government to provide us with a flat. We also have the right to food, but try telling that to Sainsbury’s when your card gets declined – even in the wealthiest countries, like Britain or the US, people often go hungry. Most people around the world, deprived of rights like these, have little recourse. We can use the language of rights to claim what the world should be like, but rights don’t count for much unless they are actively enforced. In relation to the climate crisis, this is exactly what a new movement is trying to make sure happens. Not content with just recognition, young people around the world are taking their governments to court to demand that their legal right to a healthy environment is respected. 

Last month, a group of young activists secured a historic victory in Montana, where a court ruled that the state had violated their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful” environment. In the first lawsuit of its kind, the 16 plaintiffs – aged between five and 22 – sued their state government over its pro-fossil fuel policies, including a clause which actively barred lawmakers from considering greenhouse gas emissions when approving new energy projects. Described by the group’s lawyers as a “game-changer”, the Montana victory sets a powerful precedent and opens up new possibilities in the fight against climate change. 

Similar lawsuits are already underway around the US, including in Hawaii, where a group of 14 young plaintiffs are preparing to sue the Department of Transportation next year. In the wake of devastating wildfires last month, the climate crisis has never felt more urgent and tangible in Hawaii than it does today.

One of the plaintiffs is 15-year-old Rylee Brooke, a native Hawaiian who was raised on the island of O’ahu. She first became involved in climate activism when she was just six years old, after discovering a sea turtle trapped in plastic at her favourite beach. A few years later, she founded her own non-profit, and has been heavily involved in activism ever since. Growing up on an island, Rylee has always felt an intense connection to the ocean, which was the site of her earliest and most cherished memories. “When I’m shark diving now, I can see directly how much the environment has changed. I can see how the corals have changed colour and the fish populations have decreased,” she tells Dazed.

Prior to the lawsuit, the group did their research and discovered that the Department of Transportation has a more negative impact on the environment than any other (in comparison to the rest of the US, Hawaii is generally progressive on climate issues). In terms of their specific demands, they want improved public transport and a more environmentally conscious approach to planning infrastructure. “I’m not saying we should go back to the Stone Age, but we have more advanced technologies that we can use to move forward,” Rylee says. “To give one example, the state government just built a huge airport car park, but rental companies are unable to bring in electric cars, because they didn’t think about including charging stations for them.”

As one of the most isolated island chains in the world, which is heavily dependent on its own natural resources, Hawaii is especially vulnerable to climate change. Its native culture – already eroded after centuries of colonial occupation – is also under threat. Thanks to extreme weather changes, traditional farming and fishing practices are in danger of being wiped out, while rising sea levels have started to destroy important cultural sites and wash away burial grounds.

“Protecting Hawaii means protecting all of it. Hawaii as a whole is the people, their culture, their beliefs, their value system – it’s everything,” says Rylee. In Hawaii, there is a traditional concept called ‘amakoua’, which refers to a guardian spirit (you might have seen this portrayed in the Disney film Moana, when the protagonist’s grandmother dies and then returns as a stingray.)  “Amakoua can refer to things like the ocean, the land and animals, which we believe are our ancestry,” Rylee explains. This means that for many native Hawaiians, defending the environment has a deeply personal and spiritual element.

“When I’m shark diving now, I can see directly how much the environment has changed. I can see how the corals have changed colour and the fish populations have decreased” – Rylee Brooke

The group’s lawsuit is scheduled to be held next year and, if the precedent set by Montana is anything to go by, it stands every chance of being successful. But what would victory actually mean? Would it be legally binding – or something that the government could weasel its way out of? “We don’t get into these cases just for symbolic victories. We’re trying to enforce actual constitutionally-based rights here,” says Isaac Moriwake, a Managing Attorney at EarthJustice, one of two NGOs – along with Our Children’s Trust – who are supporting the lawsuit.

“Another way of thinking about it is that the climate is a public trust, which the government has a duty to protect for present and future generations,” Moriwake continues. “That’s an ancient principle that goes back to English common law and even further to Roman law. Now in this age of climate catastrophe, we’re going back to these fundamental principles. We’re aiming to have courts actually enforce these rights, to require the government to take actions to turn this climate crisis around and stop doing things which are making it worse.” 

Whether we can sue our way to salvation remains to be seen, but this is a promising new tactic and it’s steadily gaining ground. Along with a number of lawsuits playing out at the local level, a group of young plaintiffs are now taking the US federal government to court over dangerous carbon monoxide emissions – if successful, this would be the most significant victory yet. Young people have mounted similar legal challenges in other countries around the world, and earlier this month a UN committee ruled that all countries have a legal obligation to protect children from environmental degradation (although, unfortunately, this decision was not legally binding.) Overall, this burgeoning movement is a rare cause for optimism amid a situation that is getting worse each year.  If one thing is by now very clear, it’s that our governments won’t take the action we need unless their hands are forced.

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