Historic Settlement in Hawaiʻi


One year ago, Fat Pencil Studio designed graphics and provided on-site support for plaintiffs in the Held v. Montana case, the first constitutional climate trial in the U.S.—and the plaintiffs won! The team that hired us, Our Children’s Trust (OCT), has multiple other youth-led climate cases pending across the United States (and beyond). We spent the last eight months working with OCT on the next case headed towards trial: Navahine v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation.

The thirteen young plaintiffs in the Navahine case, many of whom are Native Hawaiʻians, exercised their “right to a clean and healthful environment” guaranteed in Hawaiʻi's Constitution to fight against climate change harms like sea level rise, drought, floods, and wildfires. While Hawaiʻi's state legislature is generally progressive in environmental policy, its Department of Transportation is moving in the wrong direction. Hawaiʻi ranks highest in the U.S. on use of petroleum for energy needs, and the transportation sector is the state's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

This case was filed in 2022, with the plaintiffs represented by OCT and the Mid-Pacific office of Earthjustice, another nonprofit organization dedicated to litigating environmental issues. Though the trial wasn’t scheduled to begin until June 24, 2024, Fat Pencil was brought on in the fall of 2023 to help prepare plaintiffs' expert reports. We were able to provide clear and consistent formatting throughout the ten reports, and more importantly, develop a visual story around the most technical issues in each expert's opinion.


we worked on nearly 140 different graphics—some just required light formatting, some called for reinterpretation, and others we created from raw data

With the expert reports covering a large range of issues—from climate science to transportation policy to the influence of climate change on native Hawaiʻian cultural practices and health—we aimed to make all topics easy to understand. In some cases, Fat Pencil helped to refine existing graphics, while in others, we created infographics and charts from scratch (or rather, from data provided by the experts and OCT’s resident climate scientist).

Our goal was to provide clarity for the legal teams, lawmakers, and general public, which meant we first had to understand the (sometimes confusing) concepts ourselves. For example, the original version of the chart below was both dense and graphically busy, so we redesigned it to focus on the main message: the cooling vs. warming effects of various pollutants. In the process, we learned that a fuel regulation designed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from shipping vessels is likely to double the rate of ocean warming compared to pre-2020 levels.

While much of Fat Pencilʻs work can be considered data visualization (maps, timelines, key players charts, and the like) these expert reports gave us the opportunity to create some more conceptual infographics and data-heavy charts.

We also got to dig into a topic near and dear to our hearts: transit by bike. A major theme in the plaintiffsʻ argument was that Hawaiʻi's DOT was making unreasonable expenditures to expand their highway system while failing to invest in a more climate-friendly bicycle infrastructure. Although an expanded bikeway network was claimed as a goal, most of the planned future routes were actually shared roadways or road shoulders—which are among the least safe and comfortable kinds of routes for bicycle riders. To illustrate, we used HDOTʻs own data to map the reality of proposed bikeway expansions, including anxiety-inducing photographic examples of existing shared roadway locations.

Another important issue linked with highway expansion is that of induced traffic and how it affects vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We aren't the first team to illustrate this concept, but through a few iterations, we did manage to achieve something that is very clear and concise.

induced traffic_sm

As June 24th neared, we were expecting to ramp up our efforts to create demonstrative graphics for the plaintiffs and the expert witnesses, and I was going to be embedded in Honolulu for the duration of the courtroom proceedings (with Kalin swapping in for part of the three-week-long trial). However, the state government of Hawai'i, led by Governor Josh Green and HDOT Director Ed Sniffen, made the unprecedented decision to settle the case! Rather than spend millions of dollars on going to trial against thirteen brave young Hawaiʻians, they committed to the promise of zero emissions across all transportation modes by 2045. You can read more about the settlement in the press release, or media coverage, but major provisions include:

  • establishing a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction plan within the next year to set a roadmap for reaching the 2045 goal
  • establishing a volunteer youth council to advise on HDOT's mitigation and adaptation commitments over the next twenty years
  • improving HDOTʻs infrastructure budgeting process to prioritize reduction of GHG and VMT and transparently analyze the climate impacts of each project
  • making immediate, ambitious investments in clean transportation infrastructure, including complete pedestrian, bicycle, and transit networks in five years, and $40 million dedicated to expanding the public electric vehicle charging network by 2030

While there were doubtless many factors that led to Hawaiʻi's decision to settle the case rather than going to court, we do know that our graphics helped make the expert reports more clear and compelling. We were really pleased to see language about the reduction of VMT and the expansion of multimodal networks, including bikes, in the settlement, and of course, the role that Hawaiʻi's youth will continue to play going forward. Those inclined to be skeptical about a state agency living up to its promises will be happy to learn that this agreement has some teeth. The court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement for the next 21 years or until its terms have been achieved.

This marks a truly historic moment in the story of climate change mitigation efforts. Once again, youth plaintiffs have led the charge to make adults take stock of the situation and the science, and we're hopeful that government officials around the world will be inspired by Hawaiʻi's choice to prioritize the future well-being of its citizens over short-term political gain.


Alexandra Friedman is a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio