Alaska coastal communities are threatened by melting permafrost and rising seasAlaska faces climate impacts from melting permafrost to rising seas and 16 young people are trying to hold the state government accountable. Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

A judge in Alaska has dismissed a youth-led climate change case against the state’s government. The lawsuit alleged that the state’s pro-fossil fuel energy policy exacerbates climate change and violates the young plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller of the Third Judicial District in Anchorage granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case, Sinnok et al. v. State of Alaska.

The dismissal follows a similar one in Washington in August, when Superior Court Judge Michael Scott ruled against the young plaintiffs in Aji P. v. State of Washington. Scott said climate change presents a “political question” that ought to be addressed by the legislative and executive branches, not the courts. Miller made a similar judgment in the Alaskan case, writing, “If this court were to bypass the executive or legislative branch and make a policy judgment, it would violate the separation of powers.”  

The 16 young people suing Alaska’s governor and state agencies had asked the court to order the government to prepare and implement a plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic climate change and protect their futures. In a hearing on April 30, the state denied responsibility for causing climate change, despite Alaska’s significant oil and gas production.

The state’s own policies and documents show how the government promotes fossil fuel extraction and acknowledges that climate impacts like coastal erosion, severe storms, melting permafrost and retreating sea ice threatens the residents of coastal villages, many of them Native American.

The plaintiffs tried to connect those harms to the government’s actions to exploit fossil fuels, as codified by the state’s energy policy. However, Miller said in his dismissal that plaintiffs “do not identify specific policies the state has enacted that have directly contributed to climate change.” Essentially the judge said plaintiffs did not explain how systemic fossil fuel promotion and permitting activities by the state exacerbates climate change.

“I am deeply saddened by Judge Miller’s decision,” lead plaintiff Esau Sinnok said in a statement. “We are the youth. We are the leaders of the future. The consequences of Alaska’s energy policy and climate change are already affecting us and threatening our lives and futures.”

The courts had previously dismissed another Alaskan youth climate case, Kanuk v. State, Department of Natural Resources, filed in 2011. The Sinnok case was filed in October 2017.

The plaintiffs say they will appeal Miller’s decision to the Alaskan Supreme Court.  

“The future of our economy, environment, and home lies in the actions of the next few years; it is the state’s duty to protect the land for the next generation, and thus our duty as plaintiffs to stand up and appeal the court’s decision to neglect our constitutional rights and future,” said 13-year-old plaintiff Linnea Lentfer.

“We’re quickly approaching the point of no return after which climate harms become irreversible and catastrophic, threatening the lives and futures of Alaska’s youth and posterity,” Andrew Welle, co-counsel for youth plaintiffs and staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, said.  

“Alaska’ political branches have made clear that the State will continue to promote fossil fuels regardless of these dangers. If these dire circumstances don’t justify judicial involvement, our constitutional guarantees are not worth the paper on which they were written,” he said. “These youth plaintiffs have shown tremendous courage in bringing this case and it’s time for our courts to show courage and confront their duty to address these claims.”