Honolulu Files Suit Against Energy Producers for Climate Change Damages

Joins other cities suing Exxon, BP

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November 7, 2019

The mayor of Honolulu is adding his city to a list of governments suing major energy producers such as Exxon Mobil and BP for damages related to climate change even though courts have proven reluctant to wade into such matters and translating those damages into hard dollar amounts is nearly impossible.

"We have sent to the Honolulu City Council a resolution for their approval to file a lawsuit against big oil companies that have contributed a lot to our climate crisis," Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at a press conference earlier this week.

Detractors of these suits have argued the legal actions are less about restorative justice as they are damaging the reputation of the energy companies, a strategy that was outlined in a 2016 memo between climate change activists, political activists, and even attorneys who would later file suit on behalf of governments.

The Manufacturers Accountability Project (MAP), a leading advocate for the energy companies, said climate change is a "shared global challenge" that won't be solved by litigation.

"Climate tort suits like this have been around for fifteen years," Phil Goldberg, special councel for MAP, said in a released statement. "They are counterproductive and destined to fail. The U.S. Supreme Court and several federal courts have already dismissed climate tort suits as being baseless. We look forward to reviewing the complaint when it’s available, but nobody should look at this as any real solution."

Knowing how to assess damages in the form of a dollar amount remains a murky issue, according to a University of Hawaii urban planning professor who addressed a pro-lawsuit symposium in May of this year.

"I'm going to try and give some insight into what do we know about our local damages, and frankly my presentation is a little bit short because we actually don't know that much," said Makena Coffman, a professor at the university's Department of Urban Planning and Regional Planning.

"We've gotten to a point where the science is incredibly good, we have a really good documentation of the local impacts from the physical perspective, but from the cost side, we're just starting to understand," the professor added later. "We only have little slivers here and there."