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Alaska’s Supreme Court Considers Youth Climate Lawsuit

December 24, 2019
By Duggan Flanakin

For the second time in less than decade, the Alaska Supreme Court will decide on the merits of a civil lawsuit filed by Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust on behalf of 16 Alaskan youths.

For the second time in less than decade, the Alaska Supreme Court will decide on the merits of a civil lawsuit filed by Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust on behalf of 16 Alaskan youths.

The lawsuit claims the long-term effects of climate change will be especially harmful to Alaska’s native peoples and lands and will interfere with the youths’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and public trust resources that sustain them.

Andrew Welle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, further argues that rather than taking actions to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the state legislature and executive agencies have adopted policies promoting fossil fuel development and use, thus increasing greenhouse gases and causing climate change.

Earlier Suit Dismissed

This lawsuit, filed in 2017, marks a second bite at the apple for Our Children’s Trust.

In 2011, the group sued Alaska on behalf of six children, claiming the state had failed to enact policies to protect the youths from the dangers of climate change. That lawsuit was rejected by State Superior Court Judge Sen Tan, who agreed with the state’s argument any potential controls of greenhouse gas emissions should be decided at the political level, not by the courts.

Citing the same reasoning, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller rejected the current case in October 2018. Our Children’s Trust appealed this decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, which held oral arguments on the case in October 2019.

During the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Anna Jay, citing the two previous courts’ rulings, asked the justices to affirm the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

“The court does not have the tools to engage in the type of legislative policymaking endeavor required to formulate a broad state approach to greenhouse gas emissions,” Jay said.

The court set no date for when it would make a final ruling in the case.

Development Required

Alaska’s constitution requires the state to develop its natural resources for the benefit of all Alaskans, and the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958 laid the foundation for ensuring the state’s primary source of revenue would be from mineral leases, says Alaska state Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks).

“Article 8 of the state constitution states, ‘It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest,’” Coghill said. “Section 12 of Article 8 is even more specific, saying, ‘The legislature shall provide for the issuance, types and terms of leases for coal, oil, gas, oil shale, sodium, phosphate, potash, sulfur, pumice, and other minerals as may be prescribed by law.’”

Coghill says environmental activists are not just targeting oil and gas production but are also unthinkingly trying to shut down industries vital to renewable energy generation.

“Alaska is a favored fundraiser for big-money environmental groups seeking to drown out the voices of the state’s small population,” said Coghill. “Why would anyone want to shut down production of copper, gold, molybdenum, phosphates, and other raw materials critical to building a green economy?”

No Favorites

The state must balance the needs of native villages with those of other residents of the state, says Larry Barsukoff, an energy and environmental policy fellow at the Alaska Policy Forum.

“The plaintiffs have expressed legitimate constitutional concerns, but the future of these villages being affected by climate change is not a settled question; rather it is a political question cloaked in the mysticism of science,” Barsukoff said. “It should be possible to address the villages’ and youths’ legitimate concerns without negatively impacting resource development.”

The court should not allow an activist group to overwhelm Alaskans’ general interest in resource development, which is both constitutionally mandated and necessary for the state’s financial health, says Barsukoff.

“There are many people and groups who would like to see Alaska turned into a giant national park,” said Barsukoff. “I would be shocked and dismayed if the Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs. It will be devastating if the court rules Alaskans must eschew the very industries that, following the constitutional and statehood mandates, have brought the state and its people so much prosperity.”

Duggan Flanakin (dflanakin@gmail.com) writes from Austin, Texas.

Official Connections:

Alaska state Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks): http://akleg.gov/legislator.php?id=CGL; Senator.John.Coghill@akleg.gov