In the Courts

US Court Rules There Is A Human Right To A ‘Life-Sustaining’ Climate

The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled Monday that there is a right to a “life-sustaining climate system,” marking the first time a U.S. court has ruled that citizens have climate rights, according to Bloomberg Law.

The case was brought by Hu Honua Bioenergy against the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which regulates all utility companies operating within the state, after the regulator denied the company’s plan to enter into a power purchasing agreement with Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO). The court upheld the regulator’s decision, finding that the PUC “understood its public interest-minded mission” and rightly considered the impact of the project on citizens’ “right to a clean and healthful environment,” according to the opinion of the court, written by Associate Justice Todd Eddins.

The case has been ongoing since 2017, when environmental advocacy group Life of the Land appealed the PUC’s initial approval of the project to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which the court then sent back to PUC, according to Pacific Business News. In 2022, PUC reversed its decision, prompting Hu Honua to file its own appeal to the court.

Hu Honua wants to produce energy by burning locally-grown eucalyptus trees, which HELCO would purchase to help power the Hawaii Island’s grid, according to court documents.

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Michael Wilson wrote that we are facing a “climate emergency” that means the “lives of our children and future generations are at stake.”

“Given the climate emergency, and the need to limit atmospheric CO2 concentrations to below 350 ppm in order to leave Hawai‘i’s future generations a habitable earth, approval of the amended PPA would violate the people of Hawai‘i’s right to a life-sustaining climate system,” Wilson wrote. “Because the PUC properly evaluated the Project’s emissions—and found them to be unacceptably high given the impending climate emergency—it complied with its duty to protect the right of Hawai‘i’s people to a life-sustaining climate system.”

The right to a life-sustaining climate, Wilson wrote, is “derived from substantive due process pursuant to Article I, section 5 and the public trust doctrine enshrined in Article XI, section 1 of the Hawaiʻi Constitution.”

Maria Antonia Tigre, Sabin Center global climate litigation fellow, told Bloomberg Law the case could impact other decisions.

“We do see a lot of that cross-fertilization in climate litigation nowadays, and just having that interpretation of the right to a safe climate within the rights for healthy environment and connected to other human rights, it’s usually significant,” Tigre told the outlet.

Multiple human rights organizations already consider climate change to be a human rights issue, including Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Hu Honua did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Katelynn Richardson

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Katelynn Richardson

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