The Alaska Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that claims state policy on fossil fuels is damaging the inherent right of young Alaskans into a secure climate.
Sixteen Alaska youths in 2017 sued the state, asserting that human-caused greenhouse gas emission resulting in climate change is producing long-term, dangerous health consequences.
The lawsuit takes aim at a state statute that says it is the coverage of Alaska to promote fossil fuels,” said Andrew Welle of Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting natural systems for future and present generations.
“The state has enacted a policy of promoting fossil fuels and implemented it in a way that is resulting in substantial greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska,” Welle said in a telephone interview. “They’re harming these young kids.”
A fundamental question in the suit, as in previous state and federal lawsuits, is the use of courts in shaping climate policy.
Lawyers for Our Children’s Trust represented Alaska childhood in an ineffective 2011 lawsuit that sought court intervention because the state had failed to adopt measures to protect young people in Alaska from climate change. The judge reasoned that courts lack scientific, technological and economic tools that agencies may use to determine climate policy and it was best left in their hands.
The second suit was filed in October 2017 by Alaskans who at the time ranged in age from 5 to 20. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller at October 2018 dismissed the lawsuit, citing the 2011 case and other precedents.
Welle acknowledged that courts can’t create climate policy. But a court can intervene if the other two branches of government accept policies which exacerbate harmful consequences, he explained
“Their core role within that system of checks and balances is to make sure that the other branches are not actively and affirmatively harming individuals through official state action,” he explained. “That’s exactly what’s at issue in this case.”
The lawsuit claims that under Alaska’s Constitution, the country climate, such as fish, water, wildlife, air and sea, is a public trust resource held for greatest benefit of its own people.
Human-caused climate change will be catastrophic unless atmospheric carbon dioxide declines, according to the lawsuit. Among damages already happening: dangerously rising temperatures, changing snow and rain patterns, rising seas, storm surge flooding, thawing permafrost, shore erosion and increased wildfires, ocean acidification and violent storms.
The direct customer in the case, Esau Sinnok, has had his constitutional right to health and happiness denied by state coverage and lack of action on climate change, Welle said.
“His home village of Shishmaref is literally wiped off the map because of climate change,” Welle said. “It’s endangering his culture, the very existence of his community, the health and safety of him and his community members.”
The lawsuit asked the court to declare that state actions have violated the plaintiffs’ basic rights to a stable climate system.
The lawsuit seeks to have the state policy on fossil fuels declared invalid.
The lawsuit also asked the court to order the state to prepare an accounting of carbon emissions and create a recovery program.
This story has been corrected to state 16 Alaska youths in 2017 sued the nation.