Alaska youth ask to have their day in court
ANCHORAGE— Attorneys for Our Children’s Trust urged Alaska Supreme Court Justices on October 9 to allow their 16 Alaskan youth clients to proceed with their lawsuit against the state over its climate change policy.
“We’re here today to ask the court to intervene and allow them to present their case that Alaska’s energy policy of promoting fossil fuels is affirmatively harming them and worsening climate change,” plaintiff’s co-counsel Andrew Welle said.
“It is precisely that issue and these types of issues that courts were designed to protect in the first place under the tripartite system of government that we have in Alaska and that the nation has as a whole,” he added.
In November 2018, the youth filed their notice of appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court after Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller granted the state’s motion to dismiss the original case filed in October 2017. Miller stated that plaintiffs did not point to any state policy that contributed to climate change and ruled claims could only be addressed by Alaska’s political branches and not the judiciary.
In turn, attorneys for the youth argued that an Alaskan statute declares state policy to promote fossil fuels directly contributes to climate change and hinders the constitutional rights of their clients to a safe climate. “When confronted with a constitutional challenge to a law that the Legislature has enacted, they are required to decide it. That’s what this case is about,” Welle said. “Knowing of the dangers of climate change for decades and knowing exact types of the impacts that would happen to these young people. “
Welle explained that the state had the knowledge in the midst of a climate crisis and enacted a policy that will make climate change worse by continuing to prioritize fossil fuel development.
Assistant Attorney General Anna Jay told justices that the courtroom is not the place to decide state policy on greenhouse gas emissions. She asked justices to uphold previous rulings that conclude the courts are not equipped to formulate a policy and decide political questions best left to the Legislature.
“It is the court’s job to step in and decide whether it is permissible under the Alaska Constitution,” he said. “We are hopeful that the Alaska Supreme Court will allow these young people to go to trial and tell their stories.”
Welle said he felt good about the hearing and the questions the justices asked. While the court can take some time to come back with a ruling, Welle added that he is hopeful the response will be quick given the nature of the emergency that climate change presents.
Nine of 16 youth plaintiffs traveled to the hearing, including 21-year-old Esau Sinnok from Shishmaref and Summer Sagoonick, 18, from Unalakleet.
“I am here for my people and for the animals and the land that give so much to us. I am here because the animals and land do not speak English and I am here to give them voice. We are in the court to protect our very existence and our future,” Sinnok told an audience outside the courthouse.
Sagoonick told those gathered of her family and village’s recent struggles for their subsistence lifestyle. “We hunt big game, which means we travel 200 to 300 miles total to catch caribou. For the past few years we have been experiencing short and rainy winters. The snow melted early. The river never froze over completely. And this made it dangerous to travel by snow machine,” Sagoonick said.
“I care about my culture. It makes me who I am. We live off the land. We rely on our plants and animals to survive. Subsistence is my life. I am Inupiaq and I am proud,” she added.
If successful, the youth will ask the court to prevent the State of Alaska from implementing policies that promote fossil fuels and instead put in place actions that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and place a deadline for that reduction.