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Young Alaskans sue the state, demanding action on climate change

Esau Sinnok, of Shishmaref, is one of 16 young Alaskans suing the state. He’s shown here in 2015, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and others at the COP21 climate meeting in Paris. (Photo courtesy Arctic Youth Ambassadors)

Sixteen young Alaskans are suing the state, demanding Gov. Bill Walker’s administration take action on climate change.

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It’s the second such legal action in the last six years. In 2014, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed a similar lawsuit, Kanuk v Alaska, from six young people asking the state to reduce carbon emissions, among other recommendations. The justices ruled then that it’s not for the courts to set climate policy and that those decisions must be made through the political process, by the Legislature and the governor.

The new lawsuit says, essentially, the state has made its choice, and by encouraging oil development and permitting projects that emit greenhouse gases, Alaska is actively making climate change worse. The plaintiffs argue that violates their constitutional rights to, among other things, “a stable climate system that sustains human life and liberty.”

The suit argues it’s time for the courts to intervene.

Andrew Welle is one of the lawyers representing the young plaintiffs. He said they want the state to produce a plan to reduce carbon emissions, including from the state’s major industries.

“There needs to be a way for Alaska to address the emergency that’s being compounded by its government,” Welle said. “If that results in reductions of oil and gas extraction, that could be a component of the plan.”

Welle works for Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has filed similar lawsuits on behalf of young plaintiffs in states around the country and in federal court. Our Children’s Trust also backed the previous suit in Alaska.

The complaint, Sinnok et al v State of Alaska, is named for lead plaintiff Esau Sinnok, 19, who is from the community of Shishmaref on the Chukchi Sea coast. Shishmaref has voted to relocate because of rapid erosion due in part to the loss of sea ice. The lawsuit argues that climate change threatens “the very existence” of Sinnok’s “home village and native culture.”

Seb Kurland, a high school senior in Juneau, is another plaintiff. Kurland, 18, said young Alaskans have a particular stake in how the state handles climate change.

“I think a lot of young people in Alaska are very aware of this issue,” Kurland said. “We’re on the forefront of it, we see the impacts firsthand, we see how they alter the world around us.”

Kurland was one of 19 teenagers with the advocacy group Alaska Youth for Environmental Action who filed a petition with the Department of Environmental Conservation earlier this fall, asking the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state denied that petition, arguing the request posed “significant consequences for employment and resource development”.

But the Walker administration has promised that some sort of climate plan is in the works.

It’s not clear yet what that plan will include, or when it will be released.