Alaska News

Alaska Supreme Court narrowly dismisses youths’ climate change lawsuit

The Alaska Supreme Court narrowly decided Friday to dismiss a challenge to the state’s fossil fuel policy brought by Alaska youths.

The split 3-2 decision came in a case brought by 16 youths, including Alaska Natives, against the state of Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and several state departments. The plaintiffs argued that the state’s fossil fuel policy exacerbates the climate crisis in Alaska, harming them in violation of their fundamental rights under Alaska’s constitution.

In a case originally filed four years ago, the plaintiffs — now ages 10-25 — argued that climate change is hurting communities and in some cases destroying homes, and that the state government has enacted policies that make climate change “actively worse” by continuing to promote oil and gas extraction.

The youths asked the court to declare that the state policy of promoting fossil fuels violated their fundamental rights and endangered them. Such a declaration would make it unconstitutional for the state to enforce its policy, according to Andrew Welle, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Lead plaintiff Summer Sagoonick, a 20-year-old Iñupiaq from Unalakleet, expressed disappointment in the decision Friday.

“It is hard to tell how long our sustainable life may last,” Sagoonick said in a statement. “Our irreplaceable peoples, lands, cultures, and ecosystems are infinitely more precious than the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry.”

Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner wrote in an email that “like the young Alaskans that filed this lawsuit, all of us want a sustainable and healthy future for Alaska” but that balancing the competing interests involved in managing the state’s resources is “not within (the court’s) jurisdiction.”

“Through its policy decisions over the years, the state has achieved an appropriate and effective balance between resource development and environmental protection,” Turner wrote.

A representative of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.

For some of the 16 young plaintiffs in the case, the wait for a decision has carried them from childhood to adulthood. Linnea Lentfer was a 13-year-old living in Gustavus when the case was first filed in court. Now she is 18 and a student at Carleton College.

“As the (climate) crisis itself has progressed, since we filed, it’s become pretty clear how urgent it is and clear that my life for the foreseeable future is dedicated to finding ways to make change wherever I can,” Lentfer said in an interview Friday. “In the process of this case, climate change has become the focus of my life in a lot of ways.”

Fellow plaintiff Griffin Plush, a 24-year-old who grew up in Seward and now lives in Juneau, said that over the years since filing the court case, he has felt like youths are “fighting the Goliath of the broader political situation” but that the younger generation “is going to be louder on this issue.”

“It’s hard growing up during the climate crisis,” Plush said, listing increasing extreme weather events such as wildfires as threats to his community’s safety. “But I think that there is hope, because of young people continuing to advocate.”

Justices Joel Bolger and Craig Stowers — who have since retired from the court but were on the bench during the 2019 hearing — joined Chief Justice Daniel Winfree in the majority decision to dismiss the case. They agreed with a Superior Court conclusion that the claims made in the case were “better left to the other branches of government.”

The justices said that it would be more prudent for lawsuits related to climate change to be filed only in “actual controversies arising from specific actions by Alaska’s legislative and executive branches.”

They said that proceeding with the trial would open the judiciary to questions currently outside of their purview, such as if the court should “ultimately order that the State deny all permit applications for oil and gas drilling.”

Justices Peter Maassen and Susan Carney dissented, writing that existing state law “requires that we explicitly recognize a constitutional right to a livable climate — arguably the bare minimum when it comes to the inherent human rights to which the Alaska Constitution is dedicated.”

Welle said in an interview that the justices’ decision to uphold the Superior Court’s dismissal of the case “said that the issue of climate change is too political for the court to handle.” But the dissent was “heartening to see,” he added.

Welle is a staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that provides legal services to youths in cases related to climate change. The firm has represented youths in climate-related lawsuits filed in all 50 states and federal court.

“One day these dissents are going to become the majority opinions,” Welle said.

The plaintiffs may file a request for consideration by the Alaska Supreme Court within the next 10 days. Welle said the plaintiffs will be “identifying next steps.”

In a similar case brought by 16 youth plaintiffs against the state of Montana, a state judge allowed last year for the case to proceed to trial. That trial has not yet begun.

This is the second time that Alaska Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by youths over the state’s climate related policies. The previous case, brought by six Alaska children in 2011, was dismissed by the court in 2014.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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