ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The Alaska Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that claims state policy on fossil fuels is harming the constitutional right of young Alaskans to a safe climate.
Sixteen Alaska youths in 2017 sued the state, claiming that human-caused greenhouse gas emission leading to climate change is creating long-term, dangerous health effects.
The lawsuit takes aim at a state statute that says it's the policy 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 present and future 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 phone interview. "They're harming these young kids."
A central question in the lawsuit, as in previous federal and state lawsuits, is the role of courts in shaping climate policy.
Attorneys for Our Children's Trust 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 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.
The second lawsuit was filed in October 2017 by Alaskans who at the time ranged in age from 5 to 20. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller in October 2018 dismissed the lawsuit, citing the 2011 case and other precedents.
Welle acknowledged that courts cannot create climate policy. However, a court can intervene if the other two branches of government approve policies that exacerbate harmful effects, he said
"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 said. "That's exactly what's at issue in this case."
The lawsuit claims that under Alaska's Constitution, the state climate, like water, fish, wildlife, air and ocean, is a public trust resource held for maximum benefit of its people.
Human-caused climate change will be catastrophic unless atmospheric carbon dioxide declines, according to the lawsuit. Among damages already occurring: 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.
The lead client in the case, Esau Sinnok, has had his constitutional right to health and happiness denied by state policy 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' fundamental 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 plan.
This story has been corrected to say that 16 Alaska youths in 2017 sued the state.