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The Case For Accountability: Honolulu's Lawsuit Against Big Oil  - The YEARS Project

The Case For Accountability: Honolulu's Lawsuit Against Big Oil 

Amid the climate crisis, it can be challenging to sift through the chaos to find a win. When a win is found, the story’s fine print may reveal crushing caveats, other articles may contradict its claims, or the ‘win’ may simply appear insignificant compared to all the work that’s left. Yet, this fog of doom and gloom must dissipate, at least long enough to publish our weekly YEARS Project newsletter section about "Wins for the Planet." Wins do exist, but it is crucial to examine them with a close eye. So when I came across a lawsuit referred by a former Hawai‘i Supreme Court Justice as the current “most important climate case in the United States,” I wanted to dig deeper to understand its significance. 


Honolulu v. Sunoco is just one of thousands of climate lawsuits across the world. However, this specific lawsuit has attracted attention for the headway it’s made while taking on the titans of climate chaos, like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips. The lawsuit was initiated in 2020 by the City and County of Honolulu and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, two entities that reckon with climate impacts head-on. As local governments prepare for climate change, they must secure funds to sufficiently adapt. 

Honolulu hopes that at least some of this money will come from those who largely created the problem: the fossil fuel industry. Honolulu outlines how Big Oil’s grimy climate track record contributed to floods, droughts, coastal erosion, and other local effects of climate change. Ultimately, if not for the fossil fuel industry’s rampant deception, public and governmental attitudes may have shifted early enough to avoid some of the climate catastrophes Honolulu faces. 

Honolulu’s allegations over Big Oil’s vast knowledge and suppression of climate information are supported by a breadth of investigative works. As early as the mid-1950s, organizations like the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) knew about climate change and its potential impact on society. Since then, groups including API and GCC have poured millions of dollars into communications that cast doubt on climate change.

Investigations into individual companies’ history with climate science prove just as egregious. Nearly 80 percent of Exxon’s private communication materials affirmed anthropogenic climate change. Yet, as you can imagine, their external communications rarely reflected that knowledge. When some fossil fuel advertisements did mention anything climate-related, they doused it with a greasy sheen of deception. One Mobil ad, for example, dismissed the fears of climate change by calling future devastations “lies they tell our children.” The extent of Big Oil’s climate knowledge and depth of negligence is truly staggering. To this day, fossil fuel companies tout deceptive climate promises without demonstrating adequate progress. 

As of May 1, 2024, the trial has yet to begin, and so much could happen before it commences. Already, the Big Oil defendants have pushed back against several aspects of the case. Big Oil has continuously argued against the lawsuit’s alleged overlap with federal regulations, yet somewhat remarkably, the petitions have failed to hold weight in court so far. Now, fossil fuel defendants are on their second attempt at appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court with a slew of support from Republican attorneys general. Although the defendants’ attempts to block the lawsuit failed up to this point, their arguments successfully proved one thing: even after creating billion-dollar empires, Big Oil will always think it is too soon for them to take responsibility.


Climate action must move forward regardless of Big Oil’s preparedness, especially with how fast the cost of climate change adds up. When considering Hawai’i’s climate damage predictions, a former official from Honolulu’s climate change office aptly notes that “climate change doesn’t kill with one knockout blow. It kills by 1,000 cuts.” By 2050, carbon emissions could create  $1.3 billion in annual losses to coral reefs across Hawai’i. On top of that, sea level rise could cost O’ahu’s structures and lands nearly $13 billion by 2100. These monetary figures are enormous, but there’s still more to consider. 

Climate change also poses threats to various invaluable factors that must be considered to ensure an equity-oriented adaptation process, as noted in Honolulu’s 2024 Climate Adaptation Strategy. Coastal erosion and sea level rise of 3.2 feet could displace over 13,000 people on O’ahu, ripping communities apart and driving insecurity. Under a similar flooding scenario, nearly 190 cultural sites could be at risk on O’ahu, endangering history and ancestral connections. Additionally, climate-related ecological harm could limit access to certain resources, posing acute threats to Native Hawaiian traditional practices. If the Honolulu lawsuit delivers an adaptation fund, it will be imperative to center local voices, culture, and ecology. 


Again, this case is in its early stages and the fossil fuel defendants continue to push back. Big Oil's opposition to this lawsuit also represents opposition to the protection of vulnerable communities, rich cultural history, and treasured ecosystems. Yet, as of now, Big Oil’s attempts to hinder the case have failed and Honolulu continues to fight for its communities with unwavering courage. The work of standing up to the fossil fuel industry is daunting, exhausting, but above all, it is absolutely crucial. The sheer resilience of Honolulu deserves recognition. 

So far, Honolulu’s unique success has resonated across the U.S. Some recent lawsuits were even spurred by the same law firm that represents Honolulu, Sher Edling. Their ongoing cases against Big Oil include a December 2023 case from the Makah and Shoalwater Bay Tribes and a February 2024 case from the city of Chicago. Each lawsuit highlights Big Oil’s climate deception and advocates that companies should pay for the harm it caused to the respective regions. 

The extent of Honolulu’s success is truthfully up in the air and I’ve held my breath with each development. Working toward comprehensive, equitable solutions requires powering through uncertainty. The momentum generated by the larger climate movement must be maintained to enact lasting change. That’s how movements win.