City Climate Corner

Honolulu and Maui sue Big Oil

Episode Summary

In March, 2020, inspired by a small city in California, Honolulu sued 8 oil companies for their role in causing local climate change damages. A few months later Maui County did the same. We interview some of the key people involved to learn how it happened, why they did it, and what they expect to gain from it. Our guests are the former Mayor of Honolulu, Kirk Caldwell, Maui County Council Member Kelly Takaya King, and Alyssa Johl, Legal Director for the Center for Climate Integrity.

Episode Notes

In March, 2020, inspired by a small city in California, Honolulu sued 8 oil companies for their role in causing local climate change damages. A few months later Maui County did the same. We interview some of the key people involved to learn how it happened, why they did it, and what they expect to gain from it. Our guests are the former Mayor of Honolulu, Kirk Caldwell, Maui County Council Member Kelly Takaya King, and Alyssa Johl, Legal Director for the Center for Climate Integrity. 



Episode Transcription


Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than sixty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-size cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And, I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner. 

Abby Finis  00:29

Hey, Larry. 

Larry Kraft  00:30

Hey, Abby.

Abby Finis  00:31

We have some pretty good news that's happened this past week in Minnesota. Our largest utility, Xcel Energy, which is also in several other states, has been going through its integrated resource planning process last few years and the Public Utility Commission here just approved their plan. There have been a lot of cities and community groups that have been involved in this regulatory process, it really really had an impact. And so now we're seeing a resource plan that will not have coal by 2030. That's going to be an eighty-seven percent reduction in their carbon emissions, which is really huge. The other big thing is that they did not get approved for their natural gas peaker plants at this point, so no new gas was approved. And then the big thing that I'm really proud of is they have to include local goals in their forecasting models. And so that's a lot of distributed energy, a lot of one hundred percent renewable goals that are coming from these communities across the state in their territory.

Larry Kraft  01:30

Awesome! And we have one hundred percent goal for 2030.

Abby Finis  01:33

You do! St. Louis Park was one of the leaders in submitting comments. Thank you to St. Louis Park!

Larry Kraft  01:39

It'll be very helpful to have a little bit of wind at our backs.

Abby Finis  01:43

For sure. It's just participating in the process and following the rules of the game and the structure and pushing these companies to do better on climate stuff. It's not the only pathway, you could also sue. This country is pretty lawsuit friendly, right? Which brings us to today's episode where we go to Honolulu and Maui. How did we find out about this story?

Larry Kraft  02:08

We were investigating trying to find a good Hawaii story. And someone that had been on my advisory board when I was with IMatter contacted her and she said you know, you need to talk to my friend, Josh Stanbro, who was the former chief resiliency officer for Honolulu. I got in touch with him talking about a couple things. The first thing we're talking about was a sea level rise episode, which I think we'll still do. There's some really fascinating stuff going on there around that and how they have to do manage to retreat from the coast. But he said, "You know, one of the things I'm most proud of here was the lawsuits that we did, where we sued eight oil companies." And it was inspired by a small city. And then Maui got involved. Super interesting story. And the other thing that really resonated with me was the organization that's been supporting cities and states and doing this is a group that got in contact with me about a year ago. And I've been thinking about why should I bring this to St. Louis Park to consider. So I was really excited to have this episode and just listen and learn. And we have some, I think, really interesting people to interview, the former mayor of Honolulu, who's now a candidate for governor of Hawaii, a council member from Maui, and then also the legal director for this organization Center for Climate Integrity.

Abby Finis  03:37

Yeah, it's fantastic. And just a lot of respect to our guests today. They're doing really good work and very inspiring. Let's get them a listen. 

Larry Kraft  03:44

Let's do it.

Start of interview

Larry Kraft  03:48

In March of 2020, Honolulu sued eight oil companies for their role in causing climate change. A few months later, in October of 2020, Maui did the same. I'm really excited today to talk to some of the key people involved in those decisions, and to learn how it happened, why they did it, and what they expect to get from it. Our guests today are the former mayor of Honolulu, Kirk Caldwell, Kelly Takaya King who serves in the Maui County Council, and Alyssa Johl, Legal Director for the Center for Climate Integrity. Welcome all of you to City Climate Corner and let's start with each of you introducing yourselves and why don't we start with Kirk?

Kirk Caldwell  04:34

Well, I want to just say aloha to everyone on this podcast. And to let you know, I'm Kirk Caldwell. I was the Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu for eight years, starting in 2013 through 2020. I'm the 14th Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu and it's just good to be with a group of people who care much about our planet and fighting our climate crisis.

Larry Kraft  04:53

And Kelly?

Kelly Takaya King  04:54

Aloha everyone! I am the council member on the Maui County Council who chairs the Climate Action, Resilience, and Environment Committee. I'm also the Vice President for over twenty-five years of Pacific biodiesel which started on Maui, and I'm on the board of ICLEI, USA, which is an international organization that works with cities and local communities directly on environmental and climate action plans.

Larry Kraft  05:22

We just did an episode with ICLEI a couple episodes back.

Kelly Takaya King  05:26

Great! My participation in COP 26 was as an ICLEI delegate.

Larry Kraft  05:31

Oh, fantastic. They were telling us about some of the things that happened at COP 26. Alyssa, what about you?

Alyssa Johl  05:37

Well, thanks, Larry. My name is Alyssa Johl, I'm legal director at the Center for Climate Integrity. We are a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help communities like Honolulu and Maui hold polluters and namely the major fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis.

Unique local government structure in Hawaii

Larry Kraft  05:57

Before we dig into the topic for today, one of the things that I've learned about Hawaii is that the local government structure is different than a lot of the rest of the US in that there is not a formal level of government below the county. Kirk, I'm hoping maybe you can educate us a bit about this.

Kirk Caldwell  06:18

Well, I think it all comes from our very unique history compared to the rest United States. As you know we are a kingdom, we are individual kingdoms. At one point, each island and parts of islands had their own kings and queens. King Kamehameha The Great united all the Hawaiian Islands under one government. And all power resided in the king, just like in other places around the world throughout history. As we became a republic, and then a territory in a state, most of the power was centralized in the state government. But back at the turn of the last century, a county system was created for the state of Hawaii up until then there was no such thing as a county, unlike the rest of our country, right? Really was the county's first you know, when you think of the Minutemen and Concord and Lexington it was counties coming together gathering militia to fight the British, exact opposite here. 

Kirk Caldwell  07:04

They created the county system by two Hawaiians, Prince Kawananakoa and Prince Kuhio they wanted to give voice to the people because up to them, the governor of the Territory of Hawaii was appointed by the President of the United States. And when he talked about the people, I don't think they're talking about white people like me, they're talking about the native Hawaiian people. And some of the first two mayors of the city county probably were Native Hawaiians, but because of that the county system was created. And there is nothing below the county. But there are many things in our county government that are missing, that you would have in yours, for example, of the courts or a state function, their schools or a state function. The hospitals are a state function. So we have a more limited use of power than the state does. It's a very strong central government. So after that, it's the City and County of Honolulu. They call it the city because we have a million people on this island. So they put city in it and the other counties Maui County, Hawaii County, Koi County are the governing entities for each of those islands or group of islands. Maui is composed of three islands Lana'i, Moloka'i, and Maui, although they have an uninhabited island, Kaho-olawe and I'm getting in your territory, Kelly, so I apologize for that.

Kelly Takaya King  08:21

I think and correct me if I'm wrong, correct, but the city of Honolulu is the only incorporated city in the state of Hawaii. 

Kirk Caldwell  08:27


Kelly Takaya King  08:28

That's why they call the city and county because it actually governs the entire island, not just Honolulu. And then for our island for our county on Maui, we are Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i, and even though the Kaho-olawe is in our territory, it's really in the territory of the United States government, and they use it for military bombing practice for a long time. So we're still in the process of taking that back. It's uninhabited because there's so much shrapnel leftover on that island. I wanted to say to add to what Kirk said is that there are some benefits to leaving some portions of centralized and the centralization of the education system. Well, I would like it to be governed locally. The fact that the monies for our education system are appropriated statewide is actually an advantage because we don't use our property taxes, and therefore we don't have the rich areas having the nicest schools and the poor areas having poor schools, and all the money pretty much gets divided up per student. There are advantages to being centralized. But there are also far more disadvantages for the neighbor islands.

Climate impacts

Larry Kraft  09:33

As islands surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, I imagine climate change is a very present danger for Hawaii. So councilmember King, can you start by telling us what are some of the impacts and climate costs that you see on Maui?

Kelly Takaya King  09:49

Probably the biggest issue that we see is erosion from sea level rise and from storm surge. We have a section in West Maui right now, where it's pretty visible. There's a stretch called Kahana that is being shored up by sandbags right now. One of the condos has sand erosion from underneath its foundation as we speak. That's become very real to us. They're looking at various options for beach re-nutrification. And our island and I think the state of Hawaii has actually said we will not allow any more sea walls, because sea walls can be very destructive, any kind of hardening against nature becomes very destructive to the surrounding areas. That's been a big problem trying to figure out how these condos are going to save themselves. 

Kelly Takaya King  10:36

We've lost a community pavilion that we've used that was destroyed by sea level rise. And we've got some roads that are underwater, and a lot of the time because of sea level rise, some roads, we know we're going to be losing, that's costing us millions of dollars to relocate. Honoapi'ilani Highway, which is the road that goes from Central Maui up to the Lahaina. These are just the beginnings of sea level rise. So we're going to see much more damage the state has done in assessment. And it's in the billions of dollars, I think probably for each island. But counties are putting a position where we're being asked to help fund some of these plans for managed retreat or to save the beach. And we're really not in a position to do it ourselves. These private entities like the condos and hotels are going to have to really figure out how to finance these issues themselves. Because if we tried to save everybody's house or hotel or building that is on the beach, we'd be bankrupt in a couple of years.

Larry Kraft  11:32

Kirk is there anything you want to add to that?

Kirk Caldwell  11:34

No, the native Hawaiians called our Pacific Ocean, the blue continent. And they look at it as a body of water that doesn't separate but actually connects because as you know, they came from from places like Tahiti and came to Hawaii and double hull sailing canoes, and they did round trips. So they look at this ocean as a connector between the islands and between other places. And that blue continent surrounds the most isolated group of islands that you can find anywhere on this planet and we are affected by sea level rise. 

Kirk Caldwell  12:03

As a resident of Oahu, although I grew up on the island of Hawaii is we feel the effects of our climate crisis every single day. For example, a day there are very few trade winds. We've had no trades for most of this week when we used to when I was a kid have consistent trade winds from the northeast. They are a form of air conditioning that cools us down. We have days where it's very dry, where it used to rain a lot. It doesn't rain in Manoa, as much as it used to are in the town of Hilo where I grew up. As a result of those things we see rain bombs that hit us. We had a huge rain bomb in January that caused some real damage in areas around downtown Honolulu. We lost electricity in the building I'm in right now. We had no power for four days, all of downtown the financial district had no power. Kelly, I was in Kula yesterday, I saw the roads, only one lane of a road open. The rest had washed away. This is from the January flood. Same time it's very dry, we have massive fires on the Leeward Coast that burn former cane lands and even burned structures gets close enough behind I had a couple fires or homes were burnt. So we have a lot of rain at times and no rain at other times. 

Kirk Caldwell  13:12

We also see these hurricanes in 2015. When I was mayor we had something like sixteen hurricanes in one hurricane season, a couple category fours that ramped up and fell apart right on the shores of Waikiki. Sooner or later, we're going to get hit like Hawaii did by Niki, which is a category four that did a direct hit on Koi. Of course, the sea level rise is something you anyone who comes to Oahu or visits any of our shores. On the islands, you'll see coconut trees falling into the water, hau trees falling to the water, you'll see buildings right at the edge of the water. And there's a huge argument that's going on about whether you build walls or some type of protective feature. My point is that we feel it. And by the way, we feel it in other ways. You know what's happening on the continent, impacts the price of food, impacts the price of lumber, we may not know it, but there's a direct correlation between our climate crisis and everything else that we live through, whether it be in Hawaii or anywhere else around the world.

Kelly Takaya King  14:14

Larry, I just wanted to also add that I just pulled them some figures. In Maui County, we have $3.2 billion in assets, including 3100 acres of land, 760 structures, and 11.2 miles of major roads that are all in the sea level rise exposure area. 

Larry Kraft  14:33


Kelly Takaya King  14:34

Some of those are already underwater. Some of those are close to being underwater. And part of the cost too is a lot of money that we're putting into this climate action plan to try to figure out which facilities and infrastructure can be saved, which ones can be moved, and also how we're going to react to these climate disasters as they become more frequent and more intense. That's what keeps me up at night and wakes me up at three o'clock in the morning.

Background on lawsuits

Abby Finis  15:02

Yeah, it's incredible to hear the observed and felt impacts of climate change, underscoring the clear and present danger that it is and that we know that it's going to get worse. How do we move forward and adapt and also hold those who are responsible accountable for it? Let's turn to these lawsuits. Alyssa, can you give us some background on the Center for Climate Integrity, and help us understand the rationale for cities, counties, and states suing oil companies?

Alyssa Johl  15:31

It's interesting to hear Kirk and Kelly talk about the impacts and to think about the reality in Hawaii and communities around the country. These are very real impacts that communities are facing and the costs are going to be astronomical. Not only today or tomorrow, but 5-10-20 years down the line. The question that a lot of communities are facing and elected officials have to think about is who's going to pay those costs? Will it be the taxpayers? Or will it be the parties that are responsible for causing the problem in the first place? And, I think that for Honolulu, and Maui, I think the writing was on the wall. The billions of dollars that they're going to face in terms of infrastructure costs, building roads, bridges, relocating communities trying to address the erosion. 

Alyssa Johl  16:19

And, these lawsuits are really an attempt to shift the burden of those costs, from the taxpayers to the polluters. What's underlying them all is this polluter pays principle. These cases are really built on the premise that this industry and a few specific companies in particular, we're talking about Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Conoco, Phillips, BP, a number of others Sunoco, which is named in Honolulu, and Maui suits. All of these big fossil fuel companies knew about the causes and consequences of climate change as early as the 1960s. And they knew about the harms, they sold their products despite knowing those harms. And then they concealed and lied about the effects of their products for decades and continue to this day. The deception and denial might not be as adamant as it once was, or egregious as it once was. But, now it takes the shape of greenwashing and other forms of deception and misrepresentation. And so we know that their actions and they're deceptive acts continue to this day, and they need to be held accountable for that. So that's what these lawsuits really are all about. It's the fact that they knew, they lied, and they concealed information from the public consumers, policymakers, media, and more. And they need to be held liable.

Abby Finis  17:42

How did the first lawsuit start?

Alyssa Johl  17:45

The first lawsuits in this most recent wave of litigation were filed on behalf of California municipalities. There were several Northern California and Southern California communities that filed suit against Chevron and other fossil fuel companies. They were filed in state court under state law and a number of communities have since followed suit. There are six states as well as the District of Columbia where I live, and twenty municipalities that have taken legal action to hold the industry to account. And they're all moving through the court system as we speak. 

Alyssa Johl  18:20

The procedural status varies and each and every one of them but they are moving through the court system. And we've received a number of very favorable decisions from district courts, federal appellate courts, in the Honolulu case, which is one of the front runners of all of these 26 communities that have filed suit. There are now motions to dismiss before Judge Crabtree in Hawaii state court, who we're expected to hear from any day now. These cases are actively moving through the courts. And I can say with some confidence that I think it's quite certain we'll see more in the coming years.

How Honolulu and Maui got started with their lawsuits

Abby Finis  18:56

And, Honolulu sued eight oil companies in March of 2020. Kirk, could you give us some background on how that happened and why you became involved in them?

Kirk Caldwell  19:07

You know, Abby it makes me think back I think it's 2017 Josh Stanbro and I went to a climate conference held by Rahm Emanuel the mayor of Chicago. President Obama was there also and there is a guy named Serge Dedina he was a mayor of a very small city a surfer dude came a year from Honolulu you surf pipe by no I don't surf pipe I'm not that crazy I don't surf big waves. I surf smaller South Shore waves on a regular basis. But you know, is wearing the hat very much surfer dude kind of guy from Imperial City. But he told me he had filed a lawsuit against oil companies. I thought man, this guy has courage. So we talked and it got this flame lit for us. And then I think about people like Alyssa. She showed up on Oahu. We got her before the governor of the state of Hawaii and we are in his cabinet room with a whole bunch of people in my goal. We're on board to file a law suit, but we wanted the state of Hawaii to do it, we wanted all the counties to do it and Maui stepped up. 

Kirk Caldwell  20:06

But, here's the thing search a small city of 50,000 can make a difference. This fighting big oil is not about just big cities. It's about large and small cities. It's about large and big states. And it is a march, a long march to overcome the climate deceptors, the climate deniers that we're trying to convince people that consuming oil in vast quantities is not having an impact on your climate when they knew otherwise. And, hopefully be successful enough to actually to get money from them to address the huge infrastructure and other costs that we're gonna have to pay here on the island of Oahu. 

Kirk Caldwell  20:44

I was somewhat skeptical starting out, I thought about when big tobacco was sued, and how long it took, it was a big fight. And so I thought, is this a fight? For me, at the end of my term, you know, it's 2017 had two years left in my term. But I think every journey begins with the first step. And we're going to take the first step along with others. And we may not all get there. But some of us are going to lay a pathway. And I do believe at the end of the day, we are going to be victorious. And we are going to see big oil being held accountable for their lies and deception and their cover ups. And I think we're going to see funding coming from Big Oil in order to help our cities and counties and states that dress the impacts that they knew about decades and decades ago,

Abby Finis  21:31

Councilmember King, how did Maui get involved and decided to be in the lawsuit?

Kelly Takaya King  21:37

Well, we had to do it with Kirk Caldwell, and that office over there on Oahu, I was contacted in 2019 when I was chair of the Maui County Council. And so I met with Josh and our mayor and the attorneys from Sheridan, who is the attorney they are working with offering to represent Maui in the same lawsuit, and then they're doing it at no cost. So that was easy. For me pushing this with our council was about accountability. I know it was a long game. But I was actually encouraged by what was happening in the tobacco industry and the fights that were won there, I'm probably not going to be on the council by the time this is settled. But it's not about that it's really about the accountability and the fact that we have to do something as a collective community about these big industries that keep getting away with this. They keep getting away with a deception for their economic benefits, and they sacrifice our health and our environment in their process of trying to grab more money. It's about this right to pollute for your own economic game. I was happy to get this part done and to work with Ohau. And, now as vice president of the Hawaii State Association counties, I'm trying to work on the other two counties in our state to also join the lawsuit because this issue is statewide, it's not really just about Ohau and Maui.

Larry Kraft  22:58

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Lawsuit status

Larry Kraft  23:13

Alyssa, can you give a broader context of the status of these things?

Alyssa Johl  23:16

Let me just take a step back. And I'll use the Honolulu case as an example because I think it's characteristic of the way these cases have been playing out. The Honolulu case, as well as Maui, they were filed in state court under state law. And that's done intentionally and strategically by the plaintiffs because they think that that's the appropriate venue and the appropriate area of law that governs this type of claim. The industry, they think that they have a greater likelihood of success if these cases are heard in federal court. So what they do in each and every one of these cases is that they've removed the case to federal court, where the plaintiffs then have to file a motion to get the case brought back to state court. This has resulted in two plus years of litigation in some of these cases. Where the parties litigate, they get a decision to go back to state court and then the industry inevitably appeals that remand decision. 

Alyssa Johl  24:15

So where Honolulu is at at the present moment is that there was a decision by the district court to send the case back to state court. And so there is an active ongoing proceeding in the state court. As I've mentioned, there are motions to dismiss pending before Judge Crabtree. Meanwhile, there is a parallel proceeding going on before the ninth circuit where the parties have appealed the decision to send the case back to state court that appeal is pending. There's oral argument, I believe is scheduled for February 18. So that's coming up very quickly. So we will get an authoritative decision from the Ninth Circuit about whether or not both the Honolulu and Maui cases and the California cases whether they should be heard in state or federal court. Once we hear from the Ninth Circuit on this matter, there is no question. And the cases will be green lighted and proceed as they should.

Kirk Caldwell  25:11

There I wanted to add to Alyssa, she was a catalyst to get things going on a statewide level here on Oahu, and I hope she comes back and has another crack at it when there's a new governor. But I wanted to say that I'm really proud of our lawyers for what they've done so far, in this case here on Oahu that we've kept the case in state court before Judge Crabtree. As a result of filing this lawsuit, it's created full employment for all the major corporate law firms in downtown Honolulu. There's seven or eight firms there. One was my old firm, they've all been retained by the biggest of the big oil companies. And, they are running their harassment type action, basically, to bury the plaintiffs lawyers and to sitting on a panel with all this tedious discovering other things to wear us down to make us give up. And so this is where I think a lot of people have been involved in the fight Maui, and hopefully at Kauai some point and Hawaii Island. We all share that burden. And we may not all get through, but some of us are, and that's where the victory comes. It's an all out war by big oil using every amount of money they have to pay not only the Hawaii firms, but they come in with heavy hitters from the continent, some of the best corporate firms that you can find around the country, joining up with the best local firms to fight us and to cover up their deception. So I'm proud of the fact we're winning. I don't want to jinx it or Bochy, as they say here, the Japanese word for bringing bad luck, but so far, luck has been good.

Kelly Takaya King  26:40

But not luck, Kirk. We're right!

Kirk Caldwell  26:43

Right, yes, that's correct.

Larry Kraft  26:45

It does sound an awful lot like Big Tobacco lawsuits, right? 

Kelly Takaya King  26:48


Kirk Caldwell  26:48


Costs of lawsuits

Larry Kraft  26:49

Are their costs to, to Maui to Honolulu in participating in these lawsuits?

Kelly Takaya King  26:57

As far as I know, there have been no costs to Maui other than our own resources, in  corporation Council, which are on salary, and we have not been charged by our legal representation, Sher Edling, is that the same for you, Kirk?

Kirk Caldwell  27:12

Yeah, our lawyers have taken us on without charging us for it, which we're very grateful. And we have I think, some of the best lawyers in the country that know how to fight big oil. And I think that's partly why we're successful. The only other costs are the ones that come out of providing documentation. We do have lawyers, our corporation console, you say they get paid whether they come to work or not. And they come to work. And they have to deal with the discovery request. And of course, we need to provide information as to what our damages are. There's those kind of costs, but the kind of that you think about that you're paying high price lawyers by the hour to fight this that's been absorbed by plaintiff's counsel, which we're very grateful for. And I think they're doing that not for Maui, and I know they do it for the other counties and I think they're doing it in other jurisdictions around the country. In a way, I think they're real heroes for what they're doing.

Alyssa Johl  27:59

Absolutely, I mean, as far as I know, all of these cases have been taken on a contingency fee basis and arrangement, and there's not a penny in terms of any kind of financial transaction that takes place. Any kind of payout is just at the end of the case when there's actual remedies.

Abby Finis  28:16

So let's say you're a smaller to midsize community and you're listening to this episode, and you're thinking, hey, maybe we can do this. Where do they start, Alyssa?

Alyssa Johl  28:30

Well, we are actively in conversation with folks all over this country. We're happy to have conversations with you to share more about these lawsuits about the claims about the process, about the firms that are available for representation. We can share all the resources that we have and the tools in our toolkit. Feel free to reach out to us our website is We're happy to educate. I think there are certainly conversations to happen within any city or county council or within a mayor's office to really understand the pros and cons of this type of litigation and understanding what your climate costs truly are. Some communities have a better understanding of that than others. But we're happy to work with you on that issue as well. But I think understanding what those costs are and who's responsible and what your potential legal recourse might be. I think that's a good place to start. And then to have those conversations internally about whether or not this makes sense for your community.

Abby Finis  29:35

There seems to be some coordination among counties in Hawaii. Does it make sense to have a coordinated effort? Or can cities go it alone? Is there a better path one way or the other?

Alyssa Johl  29:46

It's always going to be a case by case analysis. Depending on the jurisdiction and the laws that are in play. You also have to look at the impacts and the costs in each community to determine what makes the most sense. In the case of Honolulu and Maui, I think there was a lot of support and information sharing and to some extent political cover that they provided and moving along side, one another. But I don't think that there was any necessity or value in actually filing a joint complaint together. I think that was done independently. And I think that's what made sense for them. That's not to say that it couldn't be done jointly. But I really do think it's a case by case analysis.

Kirk Caldwell  30:29

Abby I wanted to add the cost of litigation are covered, they only get compensated at the end, when they win. We still have to do an analysis of the cost of climate impacts on Oahu, and part of the reason is that our bond underwriters, and this is happening municipalities across the country, you want to know what you're doing to address our climate crisis, and that your bond rating is going to be adversely affected if you're not taking action. And part of that is, well, what are the costs that you're seeing as a result of this climate crisis? So this lawsuit that we filed, it has only forced us to be a little bit more aggressive and trying to assess what the impacts are and what the costs are, so that we can put it into our reports we give to our bond underwriters or bond raters every single year. And they have responded positively. 

Kirk Caldwell  31:17

As a result, this lawsuit not so much because he filed the lawsuit, although like to see damages coming in to cover the cost of remediation, but it's made us be a little more exact and precise, in terms of what are the demands going forward to deal with the rising sea level, rain bombs, those kind of things, and what kind of infrastructure cost that's going to place on City and County of Honolulu. It gives us a stronger chance to even get to a triple A bond rating, we have the double A plus. I just wanted to mention that we probably do it in any way, it's not so much an additional cost. It's just an incentive to get us to do something we should have done earlier.


Abby Finis  31:55

Are there other risks for cities to sue these major major companies?

Kelly Takaya King  32:00

It was no risk to us to Maui County, because like I said, there was no cost. So retaining retainer for the attorneys. And like Kurt said, we're having to do an inventory of damage anyway, to keep up our bond rating, because we have the highest bond ratings in the state as well. I think the only risk is if we don't move forward ourselves with climate mitigation. The risk is that we're suing an industry for getting us hooked on their fossil fuel. And at the same time, we're trying to figure out how to get off of it. We've got to start at the same time that we're assuming. We've got to recognize, yes, this is a very bad thing. We need to get off of fossil fuel ourselves as fast as possible. I don't see that happening as quick as it should be happening in our state or anywhere around the country for that matter. 

Kelly Takaya King  32:48

We have to have the same urgency in our own use. I wish we could move quicker so that we could keep up with the demands that we're making with this lawsuit. And one of the things that's going around right now that I hope we can all sign on to is there's a global campaign to sign the Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty. We can't be moving forward and increasing our use of fossil fuel at the same time that we're consuming petroleum. That's an issue for me personally, because I've been in the renewable energy industry for over 25 years.

Kirk Caldwell  33:20

Abby, I was gonna add, when you asked the question about risk, I asked myself, "Why aren't more mayors and governors of cities and states joining in filing lawsuits?" There's 26 now, between cities and states, that's not that many. And I think part of it is states and cities are not used to suing big corporate entities. I mean, they have tobacco, opioid, and big oil. But it's not in the nature of these types of organizations. So it takes some courage to get out of your standard operating procedure. And that's different and different and change is risky to people. A lot of politicians elected officials are risk adverse. They need to be given the courage. I do think those who have gone give the others courage. Socrates said courage breeds courage. And when you see someone crawling out of a foxhole, and going, you're more inclined to crawl out to and go with them. And I look at us as the early people crawling out of the foxholes. 

Kirk Caldwell  34:19

The other risk I think are twofold. One is, when you file a lawsuit, there's a winner and loser and no one likes to lose. Kind of like when you run to you either win or lose. I don't know, Larry, I mean, I ran for mayor once and lost. That was no fun. But I learned from the loss. It made me stronger, but it's more fun winning than losing so the risk is you could lose. And if you're the mayor, or the governor who was one who said let's follow lawsuit, you lose, you have to explain that to your community. Now I would have a way to explain it even if we lost, I don't think we will. 

Kirk Caldwell  34:51

And then the last one is you're suing Big Oil one of the most powerful industries in the world. In our United States Congress you can't even create a climate change committee, you know, they got committees for everything. You have a democratic climate change committee in the Senate. But it's not an official committee that has the power and authority. My point is big oils influence throughout our federal government, through our state government, through our city government is strong. It's powerful. They know people who know people who can put pressure on people, and you're taking on the giant. But I think, as more people crawl out, and they show that there's wins, I think it's going to give courage to others to take on this industry, which, really, these lawsuits, they're addressing our climate crisis. But the real issue here is bad corporate behavior, right? We're talking about corporations who know the truth, and have covered it up, just like Big Pharma, just like big tobacco, they knew what they were doing, and they covered it up to make more money. And now they're going to be held accountable for their bad behavior.

Kelly Takaya King  36:02

I would like to say one thing, I don't think you're as risk averse, as you think, Kirk because you lost but you ran again. To me, and part of this is coming as a mother, you know, and a grandmother is it's much more risky to not try to stay away from it, because you might lose. And I think that's a philosophy that we've had on our council since we become a majority of women for the first time ever on Maui County Council. I don't see that as a risk. Because if we lose, we haven't really lost anything. We haven't sent millions of dollars into it. But to not even try when we know this is the right thing to do, and we know that this deception was going on. And we know that it will continue on at the detriment to the people of Hawaii. So I didn't see going into the lawsuit as the risk. The risk is that if we're not all in, then I feel like there's a risk of hypocrisy. And I hate to see that.

Kirk Caldwell  36:54

I wanted to add something. There's this guy named Nainoa Thompson, who is a Hawaiian navigator who took the Hokulea which is a double wholesaling canoe that kind of came from Tahiti and came to Hawaii and went back just as in the stars, before white people would leave the side of the continent. He does his worldwide voyaging effort a couple of years ago, and went all over the world and it was all about climate. He had a mayonnaise jar with all these messages he gathered from everyone, including people like Desmond Tutu, who just passed away. I mean, amazing man. 

Kirk Caldwell  37:26

I heard him give a speech once where he said, you know, he had to decide whether to untie his double wholesaling canoe and sail, because there's great risk sailing the Pacific and Atlantic going around the horn and things like that. But he said, sometimes it is more dangerous to stay tight to the pier than to sail the ocean. Kelly, you're right, no action. You may think it's safe, but you're actually tied to the pier, you're going to go down, taking action and sailing, while it looks dangerous, is probably much safer than staying away in fear of Big Oil. 

Kelly Takaya King  38:03


Kirk Caldwell  38:04

And I think, you know, the City and County of Honolulu and the county of Maui are sailing, along with other brave cities and states taking on big oil in this epic battle to address corporate bad behavior.


Larry Kraft  38:20

Wow. Well, my last question was going to be for advice or inspiration for other cities or counties considering this, but I don't think I need to ask it because that was great. And it certainly impacted me. I want to thank you all. For this episode, Abby of County Climate Corner.

Abby Finis  38:38

I think Kingdom Climate Corner. 

Larry Kraft  38:40

Kingdom Climate Corner, yeah, there we go. If there is anything else you would like to add or advice, please feel free. 

Kelly Takaya King  38:49

Okay, I would just like to say that there's no future in fossil fuels. And I understand that the big corporations know that now. So they're fighting my tech to not be accountable for the past. But I hope we learn from this not just as counties and states, but as a global community, that what's really important is taking care of each other because that's why we have these big lawsuits against Big Pharma, big tobacco and big oil, because people are more concerned with their pockets than they are with the environment or the health of our friends and family. To me, that's the biggest lesson that the defendants knew, for more than 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products will have an adverse effect on people and on the Earth's climate. And now we're experiencing the effects of climate change. 

Kelly Takaya King  39:34

You know, we can hold people accountable. And hopefully we'll get the money to do what we need to do to address the effects of climate change. But there's a deeper reason we're doing this and there's a deeper philosophy behind this. It's going to be a global change so that we don't have to go through these kinds of lawsuits on a regular basis, which seems to happen. The basis for everything is green. I would encourage other communities to join the fight because it's not just a fight against big oil. It's not just a fight against big corporations, it's really a fight against this adverse behavior that emanates from greed. And we need to all be together on that message.

Kirk Caldwell  40:11

I did want to thank you Alyssa for being the tip of that spear of getting us going. And I can imagine you're doing the same in other states around the country and bringing other cities and counties. So I hope you keep charging forward. Kelly, all of us, we're fighting on the right team. 

Kelly Takaya King  40:25


Kirk Caldwell  40:25

You know, we're with the good guys. And I feel really proud of that. The other thing is, you know, I think about tobacco, you know, I lost my dad he was an OBGYN, yet he was addicted to smoking tobacco. You know, I knew someone who died from tobacco, a personally directly horrific death, affects me to this day, through the misleading statements early on. All of us, I think, are starting to know people who've died from climate crisis. Think about the folks in paradise who burned to death in their cars trying to flee. Think about people drowned and washed away and flooding in Europe. Think about fires in Greece, and outside of Sydney. It's becoming such a crisis that we know people, just like I knew my dad, who are starting to die from this crisis. And it's time that big oil was held accountable for that tragedy. So that's why I know we're on the right side. And I just hope we all keep fighting.

Larry Kraft  41:21

I do have to make a small note here that earlier, you were telling Alyssa, that maybe she could come back to Hawaii and help out with the next governor and just wishing you good luck in your race.

Kirk Caldwell  41:33

It's a difficult campaign to say the least. But I've never given up on any fight. Just like fighting big oil. You know, we do all weekend. But thank you, Larry. That's right. I do appreciate it. And I do hope we all get together in person again maybe to celebrate victories for Honolulu and Maui.

Alyssa Johl  41:52

Absolutely. Thank you for your leadership.

Abby Finis  41:55

This is a very inspirational conversation. 

Abby and Larry debrief

Abby Finis  42:00

Wow. So what are your takeaways, Larry?

Larry Kraft  42:06

The first one I'll say is the story they told about how this idea came to them when they were at this conference and met a surfer dude Mayor from Imperial Beach, California, Serge Dedina, hoping I'm pronouncing his name, right. Imperial, California, by the way, is 27,000 people. And he said, "Yeah, I'm suing the oil companies, you should do it, too." So this idea originated from a small city.

Abby Finis  42:34

Yeah, I think that's pretty incredible. And a number of governments that are following suit and bringing their own lawsuits forward. And I think that we'll only see that to grow very, very strong parallels to the lawsuits against the tobacco industry. You knew this was a problem, you knew it was causing harm, you lied about it. And you continue to extract and sell this product that is harming directly harming us.

Larry Kraft  43:00

I also found the point interesting that today that you can see that they've shifted their tone a bit. But the point is, right now they're greenwashing. Right? They're still selling this product and have reaped all these rewards at the expense of our habitat.

Abby Finis  43:17

It's incredible to me. We have subsidized fossil industries for a long time, we continue to subsidize them. And it seems likely that they'll be subsidized as they kind of wind down in different places as well. And there's been little to no give on the other side and acknowledging responsibility for this. And that's the question all the time, right is how are we going to pay for this, and we keep looking for these different avenues of like, public tax dollars, public investment, private investment, but there's this other piece out there of accountability and paying for damages that you caused. And so I think that's really the heart of these lawsuits is, you cause this and you're responsible for this.

Larry Kraft  44:03

I found the number that they threw out of, I think it was $3.2 billion worth of facilities that are in the zone that will be impacted by sea level rise. That's an incredible number. And the thing, though, is if you look at any city, I mean, in St. Louis Park, we have it as well. There's infrastructure costs that we're going to incur because of climate change. And city budgets are not sufficient to handle many of these costs. And so we look for state support and federal support, but you're right, why should the organizations that caused it and profited immensely off it be paying? The thing for me as I think about bringing this to council and St. Louis Park is it the right thing to do to be part of this so that at some point in the future, I do think it will be successful at some point. There's some funds that help expenses that are coming.

Abby Finis  44:58

The thing that stood out to me, Councilmember King brought it up is that conundrum or feeling like a hypocrite, right? Like you're taking on the fossil fuel industry, while you're also stuck in this system of having to use fossil fuels. And people do what we can here and there, but at the end of the day, it's very hard to live a fossil free life in these systems that we've created. And so we have to broker a path out of here. And that's going to require some hypocrisy along the way. And that's okay, as long as we can get to that outcome where we're using these clean alternatives and still thriving. And probably thriving more actually. 

Larry Kraft  45:44

Yeah. One of the things on the financial side of this that struck me quite a bit was, I think it was Kirk talking about bond ratings, and that they have to assess the impacts and costs of climate change anyway, because as they raise money, for bonding, the folks that are giving them money are requiring that because they want to understand what kind of risk there is. So it was easy enough for them to do that. They had to do it anyway. And then to say, Well, look, the folks that caused this should be held accountable. 

Abby Finis  46:18

Yeah, we're in it, right. The global temperatures been rising, it's gonna continue to rise, even if we shut off all emissions. And so we're gonna face the consequences of that going forward. And we ask what is the risk to suing these companies, they might intimidate you, they might wear you down, but there's not the financial risk and there's only gain taking them on and winning. Kudos to to Honolulu to Maui to all of the entities that are out there leading the charge on this. 

Abby Finis  46:51

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  47:15

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by, me. Our production assistant is Maggie Morin. Music by…

Abby Finis  47:23

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Larry Kraft  47:26

Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.