Alaska, a major exporter of oil and gas, is fighting a youth climate lawsuit.Alaska, a major producer of oil and gas, argues a youth climate lawsuit should not be allowed to proceed. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

In defending Alaska against charges by a group of youth plaintiffs that the state is violating their Constitutional right to a safe climate, the state’s assistant attorney general declared on Monday, “Alaska is not destroying the environment. Alaska is not causing climate change.”

Alaska is trying to fend off of a lawsuit by a group of young people, Sinnok et al. v. State of Alaska, which alleges constitutional and public trust violations stemming from the government’s pro-fossil fuel energy policy. Last year, the Alaskan government denied a youth petition requesting the Department of Environmental Conservation regulate greenhouse gas emissions and set strict emission reduction targets. Consequently, 16 young people from across the state filed suit in Alaska Superior Court.

In a hearing on Monday, Judge Gregory Miller listened to oral arguments on the state’s motion to dismiss. Assistant Attorney General Sean Beausang argued that the youths’ climate lawsuit should not be permitted to go to trial. He argued that the state’s contributions to climate change do not matter and that the government is not responsible for the impacts. 

Alaska has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S., raising sea level, melting glaciers and permafrost and leading to rapid changes in wildlife habitat and crucial marine ecosystems.

And according to Andrew Welle​, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and staff attorney at Our Children’s Trust, the state’s own records show that its emissions are comparable to states whose populations are 3.5 to 7 times larger than Alaska. Those figures, he said, also do not account for the large amount of oil and gas extracted in Alaska and exported out of state.

“By no means is Alaska a small contributor to climate change,” said Welle.

In its motion to dismiss, the state noted that the courts dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by a group of young people in 2011. In that case, the state superior court ruled that the claims were best addressed by the executive and legislative branches, reasoning the state argues should also apply in this suit..

The young plaintiffs, however, said that because the state refused to accept their petition to the regulatory agency, they had little recourse but to turn once again to the courts.

According to Welle, the current case challenges the government’s inadequate climate policy.

“We’ve made clear to the court that that policy consists of generating emissions without respect to the constitutional rights of these young kids,” he said.  

“Our state constitution says that state policy will control the development of resources consistent with the public interest,” said youth plaintiff Linnea Lentfer. “Increasing CO2 emissions is not consistent with the public interest. Endangering our fish is not consistent with the public interest.”

Esau Sinnok, a 20-year-old plaintiff from Shishmaref, said, “With the state contributing to climate change it has the duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and respect our human rights to live in a healthy, safe and sustainable environment.”

According to Brad DeNoble, co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, the state has failed in this duty. “Since 2011 the state has not taken any meaningful action to address the effects of its fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions policy,” he said. “We believe this hearing today is an important first step in the court preserving these constitutional rights.”

Welle said he thinks the judge was receptive to the severity of the harms. “We’re hopeful that he’ll come out with a quick and well reasoned decision allowing these kids to go to trial,” he said.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Miller said he would consider the arguments and issue a written decision on whether the case will proceed to trial. He did not give a timeframe for making his decision. 

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