How 14 youth advocates in Hawaii are fighting climate change by taking the state to court

How 14 youth advocates in Hawaii are fighting climate change by taking the state to court
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Youth plaintiffs and supporters hold up signs after the Navahine vs the Hawai'i Dept of Transportation court hearing in Honolulu, Hawaii on January 26th 2023.
Youth plaintiffs and supporters hold up signs after the Navahine vs. the Hawaii Department of Transportation court hearing in Honolulu on January 26.Elyse Butler/Earthjustice
  • Hawaiian youth advocates sued the state's transportation department over greenhouse-gas emissions.

  • The lawsuit is part of a growing movement of young people taking climate action in the courts.

  • Extreme weather caused by the climate crisis threatens Hawaii's environment and cultural traditions.

  • This article is part of "Journey Toward Climate Justice," a series exploring the systemic inequities of the climate crisis. For more climate-action news, visit Insider's One Planet hub. 

When Taliya Nishida was 10 years old, her home on Hawaii's Big Island was struck by a deluge of flash floods. The roads near her family's off-grid house were washed out under several feet of water, and Nishida sat helplessly in their truck as they tried to get to her aerial-silks practice.

"I was so scared that I told my mom, 'I don't want to die,'" Nishida, now a sophomore in high school, recalled. "I know that may sound dramatic to some, but it's truly how I felt because I was just that scared of our truck being pushed away from the water."

As global temperatures rise, flash floods and other natural disasters have worsened in recent years, and as an island nation, Hawaii is particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.

In August, wildfires devastated parts of Maui, displacing thousands of people and destroying historic sites.

Amid the escalating climate crisis, Nishida and 13 other Hawaiian youth advocates sued the Hawaii Department of Transportation in 2022 over transportation-related greenhouse-gas emissions. The lawsuit is part of a growing international movement of young people taking climate action in the courts, including in Montana, where a group of youth plaintiffs won a landmark lawsuit in August that compels the state to take climate change into account when considering fossil-fuel projects.

The lawsuit, Navahine F. v. Hawaii Department of Transportation, is scheduled to go to trial next summer.

"I feel like many things are at risk of being lost, not only physically, but also memories," Nishida told Insider. "Our shorelines are getting lost by rising sea waters, and the time to make memories with the things around us is shortening because we don't know how long it's going to be here for."

Taliya Nishida
Taliya Nishida.Courtesy of Taliya Nishida

Youth advocates are leading the charge

While Hawaii has a number of environmental laws on the books, including ones aimed at curbing pollution and ensuring land protection, greenhouse-gas emissions from the island nation's transportation systems have increased in recent years. Transportation emissions made up the largest share of energy-sector emissions in Hawaii in 2017, according to a 2021 report by the Hawaii Department of Health.

The youth plaintiffs' lawsuit seeks to change that.

"There's a clear problem with respect to how the state is operating its transportation system," Andrea Rodgers, the senior litigation attorney at Our Children's Trust and cocounsel for the youth plaintiffs, said. "The young people are seeking a declaration from the court that not only do they have constitutional rights to a life-sustaining climate system, but the state has an obligation to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions."

Because people under 18 can't vote and typically don't have the money to lobby legislators, they have very limited political power, Rodgers said. Many of the youth clients she represents have done "everything in their power" to communicate with policymakers, whether it's through testifying in legislative hearings, meeting with government officials, or putting up signs on street corners, she said.

"What I think is unique about young people is they're fresh from their civics classes and learning about the role of the government," Rodgers told Insider. "I think why they're turning to the courts is that they're seeing their fundamental rights get infringed upon by their political branches, so they're turning to the courts to protect themselves."

Youth plaintiffs gather before the start of the Navahine F. v. the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation hearing at the First Circuit Environmental Court in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, on January 26, 2023. Pictured left to right: Kaʻōnohi P.-G., 16, KawahineʻIlikea N., 13, Taliya N., 15, Navahine F., 15, Mesina D.-R., 15, Kalā W., 19, Rylee K., 15, and Kawena F., 10.

Relying on nature

Nishida decided to take action after she saw the devastating effects of the climate crisis firsthand.

She and her family live off-grid in Waimea on the Big Island, miles away from the nearest town. That means they rely on solar panels and water catchments for virtually all of their electricity and water. Nishida said her parents chose to live off-grid as a way to "be part of the island and connect to their roots."

The family's reliance on natural resources has left them especially vulnerable to extreme weather events. During droughts, there's little water in their catchment, so they've used "drastic methods" to conserve water, like limiting showers to no more than a couple of minutes to flushing toilets with buckets of water they hauled from town, Nishida said.

Nishida said things are only getting worse: The island has experienced more droughts and she's seen more trees uprooted by storms and flash floods.

Flash floods near Taliya Nishida's home
Roads were flooded during a flash flood near the Nishidas' home in 2018.Courtesy of Taliya Nishida

One of Nishida's treasured memories is going to the beach with her family. Now she fears those outings are at risk of disappearing.

"When I was little, I would go to all these different beaches, and there'd be tons of people with lots of space," Nishida said. "But more recently, there have been higher tides, so there's less space on the beach for people to play and have fun with others."

When Nishida first heard about the lawsuit against the Department of Transportation from her mother, she knew this was her chance to contribute to a larger cause.

"I realized I had never done anything prominent to help my climate," she told Insider. "I thought that by joining this, I can be one small voice in a sea of problems."

A culture at risk

Climate change threatens not only Hawaii's natural environment but also its Native Hawaiian culture, which has endured existential threats from European colonization and the United States' annexation of its islands in 1898.

Extreme weather like heavy rains and droughts have damaged traditional kalo, or taro, farming practices, which, in turn, jeopardizes food security on the islands. Hawaii's coral reefs have shrunk by up to 50% in recent years, leading to degraded coastal protection that threatens traditional diets.

Navahine Fukumitsu in her family's lo'i kalo (taro patch) in Hakipu'u, Hawaii their family has farmed for over 10 generations.
Navahine F., the lead youth plaintiff, at the taro patch that her family has farmed for over 10 generations.Elyse Butler/Earthjustice

Rising sea levels eat away at what limited land there is in Hawaii to use for farming and encroach upon cultural traditions. For example, higher tides are washing out traditional burial sites along the coast, leaving both emotional and physical damage in their wake.

In the face of the threats to their homes, Nishida and the other youth advocates are fighting to preserve their culture and ways of life.

"The climate on this island is what feeds us," Nishida said. "There's a Hawaiian saying that translates to, 'Land is chief, man is servant.' Everything that humans need to survive, it all comes from nature. Without nature, then humans as a society, we have nothing."

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