A group of young people in Alaska are charging the state's fossil fuel policies violate their rights as climate change threatens their communitiesA group of young people in Alaska are charging the state's fossil fuel policies violate their rights as climate change threatens their communities. Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

Young Alaskans who are suing their state government over climate change harms had their appeal heard on Wednesday in the state’s highest court, which will decide whether to allow the case to proceed to trial. The 16 young plaintiffs are alleging the state violated their rights under Alaska’s constitution by promoting fossil fuel development despite knowing it drove climate change.

Their case, Sinnok et al. v. State of Alaska et al., had been dismissed by Alaska Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller last year. Miller ruled that the claims could only be resolved by the political branches of government. The young plaintiffs appealed that ruling to Alaska’s Supreme Court. A three-judge panel heard oral arguments Wednesday and will issue a written decision on whether to uphold the dismissal or to allow the case to continue to trial. 

“These young people are here today to ask the court to intervene and allow them to present their case that Alaska’s energy policy of promoting fossil fuels and affirmatively harming them, worsening climate change, is an issue that courts can decide,” attorney Andrew Welle, co-counsel for the young plaintiffs, said in a post-hearing press conference. “We are hopeful that the Alaskan Supreme Court will come back with a decision that will allow these young people to go to trial and to tell their stories.” 

Lead plaintiff Esau Sinnok, an indigenous Alaskan from the village of Shishmaref, a barrier island, said rising seas and coastal erosion threaten his community and way of life. “Climate change is not just a political issue for me, it’s my lifestyle, it’s what I face everyday back at home,” he said. “The one and only place I get to call home is being eaten by the sea.” 

Attorneys for the state of Alaska argued in a previous hearing that the state is not responsible for causing climate change. The state argues that the young people have not identified specific policies that contribute to climate change, and that courts cannot make policy judgments on complex issues like the climate crisis. The state argued again on Wednesday that courts cannot decide how the state should address climate change. 

Welle maintained that the Supreme Court does not have to make any policy judgment at this stage in the case, since the court is not yet ruling on the merits. “The merits of this case are for another day,” he said. “We are merely requesting that this court allow this case to proceed.” 

The plaintiffs have pointed to an Alaska law that declares it is a state policy to promote fossil fuels, which they claim violates their constitutional rights. The Supreme Court, they argue, has a duty to review such claims and to act as a check on the political branches if they infringe on citizens’ fundamental rights. 

“This court cannot shed its constitutional duty to decide claims simply because the science may be complex,” Welle told the court. 

If the Supreme Court decides in plaintiffs’ favor, the case would go back to the Superior Court and proceedings would continue on the merits, including a trial. 

“There’s an urgency here because we’re in the midst of a climate crisis in which these young Alaskans are already being harmed, and that should inform the Supreme Court’s analysis as to whether they have a duty to confront those claims,” Welle told Climate Liability News. “The courts are these plaintiffs’ last resort.” 

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