NO SURPRISES HERE: HONOLULU ANNOUNCES INTENT TO FILE CLIMATE LIABILITY SUIT AFTER BEING COURTED BY ACTIVIST ATTORNEYS
by Spencer Walrath, Energy In Depth, November 6, 2019
After years of investigation, millions of pages of documents reviewed, and hours upon hours of legal scheming, the New York Attorney General’s office finally faced ExxonMobil in a courtroom this fall—only to stumble on the execution. Now, with closing arguments looming, climate activists are trying to keep the litigation dream alive, announcing that the city of Honolulu and Maui County will soon file lawsuits of their own against energy producers.
“We’re starting the first steps to protect our island of Oahu, our state of Hawaii and our planet,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a press conference on Tuesday.
Unlike the New York case, which focused on charges that ExxonMobil had misled shareholders, Honolulu’s lawsuit is a climate liability suit just like those filed by San Francisco, Rhode Island, and a fisherman’s association. The Honolulu city council and Maui County council will need to approve the lawsuits before they are filed in state court.
Activists Set Their Sights on Hawaii
Honolulu’s suit is anything but a surprise. Climate activists and trial attorneys angling for hefty contingency fee payouts have been courting city officials for months, trying to persuade them to join the coordinated campaign against energy companies. In fact, reporters at Caldwell’s press conference pressed the mayor, asking if he had been pressured by environmental groups or the law firm Sher Edling to file the lawsuit. While he protested that the city made its decision on its own, he is submitting a resolution to the city council to retain a “special deputy corporate counsel”—Sher Edling.
After a failed attempt by climate litigants this spring to persuade Ford Lauderdale to join the cause, the climate litigants turned their attention to Honolulu. Over the course of the summer, an all-star slate of environmental attorneys with ties to the lawsuits visited Honolulu.
In June, Vic Sher, the attorney representing twelve municipalities and a fishing trade association in various lawsuits against energy companies, and Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at UCLA Law School’s Emmet Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, spoke on a panel hosted by the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law.
The event was a blatant attempt to garner support for activist litigation against energy companies. Co-hosted and sponsored by two groups who have been leading cheerleaders of the climate liability campaign—the Center for Climate Integrity and the Union of Concerned Scientists—Sher and Carlson’s panel focused on “legal strategies and the rationale for climate impact lawsuits being pursued across the country.”
In addition to Sher and Carlson, the event featured other speakers who have advocated for or assisted with climate liability suits against energy companies. Alyssa Johl, a former attorney for the Center for International and Environmental Law who is currently working for the Center for Climate Integrity, spoke on the same panel.
Undisclosed Ties to Plaintiffs’ Attorney
The law school’s associate dean and host of the event, Denise Antolini, later took the highly unusual step of co-signing an op-ed with activist attorney Johl advocating for Hawaii to file a climate liability lawsuit. Antolini previously worked for Vic Sher (video time index 39:30), which may explain why the academic is so gung-ho to support the misguided crusade of her old boss. Neither Antolini nor Johl disclosed their relationship with Sher, who was very likely in active talks with Honolulu about bringing a lawsuit at the time, in their op-ed.
Hawaii lawmakers also voiced support for the climate liability suits over the summer. Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, who has filed an amicus brief in support of the suits filed by Oakland and San Francisco, said at the same event that she believed oil and gas companies should be forced to pay for climate change costs.
Meanwhile, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has made combatting climate change a priority for his city’s agenda with a pledge to completely eliminate fossil fuels from all public and private ground transportation across Hawaii by 2045. (This lofty goal conveniently ignores how much of Honolulu’s economy depends on tourists who arrive via fossil-fuel-burning cruise ships and airplanes.)
Climate activists have yet to see a major win the courtroom. After the NY AG stumbled several times presenting its case against ExxonMobil, activists are turning their attention to liability lawsuits. Unfortunately, it rests on the same shaky foundations as the suits which came before.
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