Youth Appeal to Alaska's Supreme Court to Force Climate Action

18-year-old Alaskan Nelson Kanuk is fed up with inaction on climate change and is suing the state in the Alaska Supreme Court. He’s being joined by six other teenagers and their parents.

Kanuk sees the impacts of climate change first-hand – it’s  ruining his community of Kipnuk – which is on the front lines of climate change – and on his own home, which was destroyed by flooding and melting permafrost earlier this year. The family has since moved about 100 miles away.

Kanuk

The plaintiffs want the court to order the government to put Climate Recovery Plans into place that cut carbon emissions by at least 6% a year through 2030. That’s the rate needed to restore balance in the atmosphere and massive reforestation, according to climate scientists led by Dr. James Hansen.

Kanuk’s case is one of many that’s moving through the courts. For the past several years, attorneys representing children and young adults have been filing legal actions in every state. Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit, files the lawsuits. 

But Alaska is on the front lines of the climate crisis. Over the past 50 years, Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate than the rest of the country. Higher temperatures already cause earlier spring snowmelt, vastly reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, and permafrost warming. The Village of Kivalina – just south of Kanut’s community is expected  to be under water by 2023.

The Case Against Alaska

Kanuk sued Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources in 2011 for failing to reduce carbon emissions in order to protect the state’s natural resources as required by its Constitution.

A lower court dismissed the lawsuit in 2012, citing that policy decisions are the domain of the legislature or the executive branch.

But Kanuk isn’t giving up. In November 2012, his attorney filed a brief with Alaska’s Supreme Court, appealing the lower court’s decision. They are not asking the court to set policy, they argue, but merely want the state to meet its responsibilities.

They are asking the Court to consider the atmosphere a "public trust" to be preserved for future generations. The Public Trust Doctrine says the government has the responsibility to protect the peoples’ shared natural resources such as the air and navigable waterways.

"The greatest threat to Alaska, its people and its natural resource is the impairment of the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gas emissions," says attorney Brad De Noble of Our Children’s Trust. 

More than 20 of the nation’s most highly respected environmental law professors and scholars have filed briefs upholding the argument.

And last week, Alaska’s high court heard the appeal – it could render a decision by the end of this year. Incredibly, the state’s Supreme Court held the appeal in a high school auditorium, where hundreds of students listened and asked the attorneys questions after the hearing.

If Kanuk wins his case, it would set an extremely important precedent.  

Last year, a Texas judge ruled the state IS responsible for the atmosphere.

To follow the case, go to:

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