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Environment

Supreme Court upholds dismissal of youths' climate lawsuit against state

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 12, 2014

A lawsuit filed against the state by six Alaska children claiming that officials have failed in their obligations to address climate change was rightfully dismissed in 2012, but not for the reasons cited in the lower court's decision, the state Supreme Court said in a ruling issued on Friday.

The six minor plaintiffs -- children of ages ranging from infancy to their teens -- "do make a good case" that the atmosphere is a public trust and that environmental damage is of public interest, the Supreme Court said. The lower court erred in determining that the public-trust doctrine did not apply, according to the opinion.

But the youths' argument for court-ordered emissions limits to protect the atmosphere is flawed, the ruling said.

"Although declaring the atmosphere to be subject to the public trust doctrine could serve to clarify the legal relations at issue, it would certainly not 'settle' them," the Supreme Court opinion said. "It would have no immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska, it would not compel the State to take any particular action, nor would it protect the plaintiffs from the injuries they allege in their complaint."

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 against the state and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The minor plaintiffs, from communities around Alaska, faulted state officials for failing to significantly reduce air pollution and the resulting climate impacts. The state's failures, the young plaintiffs argued in their lawsuit, amounted to a breach of the public trust and diminished prospects for members of their generation to enjoy a "liveable future."

The youth case was championed by an Oregon-based environmental group, Our Children's Trust, which is advocating similar youth-focused efforts in other states.

State Superior Court Judge Sen Tan dismissed the complaint, agreeing with the state's argument that any potential controls of climate-changing atmospheric emissions should be decided at the political level, not through the judicial process. State attorneys also argued that, while they were sympathetic to the plaintiffs, there was little that state agencies could do about the carbon emissions because most of the climate-changing emissions are coming from outside of Alaska.

The case, and its young advocates, drew special attention. Plaintiff Nelson Kanuk, a teenager from the southwestern Alaska village of Kipnuk, was interviewed by National Public Radio last year. Several legal scholars from outside of Alaska filed amicus briefs in support of the children's claims. And the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last October at a hearing held at Barrow High School, making it the first time in decades that the state's highest court has convened in the nation's northernmost community. After the hearing, the justices held a public session, taking questions and addressing students and other community members.

Advocates for the young plaintiffs said Friday's Supreme Court ruling was not a complete setback, and they will ask the justices to reconsider.

"The Court did some really good things in this decision today by ruling that people have the right to be in court because of harms from climate disruption and by underscoring the importance of the constitutional public trust doctrine," Brad DeNoble, one of the attorneys, said in a statement issued by Our Children's Trust. "We will ask the Court to reconsider their essential role in enforcing the public trust. The Court agrees that the legislative and executive branches must protect all public trust resources, but when those branches fail to meet their fiduciary duty to do so, it has always been up to the courts to intervene."

"When our legislature and executive aren't doing anything, where else can we turn?" Kanuk, now a sophomore at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in the statement. "And how long must we wait and watch our ice melt and our food sources diminish? What if the political will comes when it's too late? The Court should not wait to be a check on the other branches of government after it's too late to matter. This is their moment and we'll keep asking until someone answers with the help we need."

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