Alaska Supreme Court Hears Youths’ Climate Change Lawsuit

October 10, 2019 by Dan McCue
Plaintiffs in a major climate change lawsuit strike their “power pose” outside the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo via Facebook)

WASHINGTON – Alaska’s government-mandated embrace of fossil fuel development is devastating the nation’s northernmost state and infringing on the constitutional rights of young residents to a healthy environment, a lawyer for 16 young plaintiffs told the Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Two years ago, the plaintiffs, who then ranged in age from 5 to 20, filed a lawsuit claiming the long-term effects of climate change exacerbated by human activities such as oil and gas exploration, compromises their rights to life, liberty and the national resources that sustain them.

Since then, argued attorney Andrew Welle of the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust group, the state’s legislative and executive branches have done nothing to address the plaintiffs’ concerns to the lower greenhouse gas emissions blamed for accelerating climate change.

Our Children’s Trust previously represented Alaska youth in an unsuccessful 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 ultimately concluded that courts lack scientific, economic and technological resources that agencies can use to determine climate policy and it was best left in their hands.

A second lawsuit — the one before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday — was filed in October 2017.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller in October 2018 dismissed the lawsuit, citing the 2011 case and other precedents.

But Welle argued before the five-justice panel of the Alaska Supreme Court that the issue is “squarely within the court’s authority.”

Assistant Attorney General Anna Jay said while she appreciated the youths’ concerns, the issues they raise and the policy changes they are seeking, can only be addressed by the state’s legislature and governor.

In asking the judicial panel to affirm the lower court ruling, Jay said, “the court does not have the tools to engage in the type of legislative policy making endeavor required to formulate a broad state approach to greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The situation is complicated by the fact that Alaska has no state sales or income tax and historically has relied on the petroleum industry for much of its revenue.

The lawsuit asserts human-caused climate change will be catastrophic unless atmospheric carbon dioxide declines.

Among damages already occurring, the suit says, are dangerously increasing temperatures, changing rain and snow patterns, rising seas, storm surge flooding, thawing permafrost, coast erosion and increased wildfires, ocean acidification and violent storms.

Welle asked the court to declare that state actions have violated the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights to a stable climate system.

The plaintiffs also seek to have the state policy on fossil fuels declared invalid and an order directing the state to prepare an accounting of carbon emissions and create a recovery plan.

The court did not indicate when it might rule on the lawsuit.

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