Oral arguments were heard Wednesday in the Alaska Supreme Court case in which 16 Alaska youths sued the state on the grounds that its promotion of fossil fuels and contribution to climate change violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and a healthy environment.
The youths filed an appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court after the dismissal of their case in November by Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller, who cited a similar 2011 case that decided the courts do not have the ability to set climate policy.
The 16 plaintiffs come from across Alaska, including Fairbanks, Anchorage and Unalaska, and range in ages from 7 to 22. Esau Sinnok, who is the lead client on this case, is from Shishmaref, a community on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea that is facing relocation as result of erosion.
In a little under an hour Wednesday afternoon, both sides made their arguments to the court at the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage. Opening arguments were livestreamed on “Gavel Alaska.”
The state has not only not done enough to limit greenhouse gases, argued attorney Andrew Welle, of the Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, but also it has embraced a policy that puts more of it into the atmosphere.
“This is an issue that is squarely within the court’s authority,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Anna Jay told the court that the group brings forth important issues but not ones the court can resolve. She argued the court could not apply a standard in how the state approaches climate change, as it would require the court to weigh competing state obligations and public policy concerns.
“It seems to me that it’s a fairly straightforward exercise of our judicial authority,” said Justice Peter Maassen, regarding the court’s ability to make a ruling on the right to a clean atmosphere.
Simply stating that there is a right to a clean environment and atmosphere is within the judiciary’s purview, Jay said, but what is not is deciding how the state should weigh that against other rights.
“The state needs to take into account a multitude of constitutional rights and constitutional obligations in determining how it’s going to approach this problem of climate change,” Jay said.
Welle, in his rebuttal, said his clients are already facing “profound harm” as a result of climate change and asked that they be given the chance to talk about the issues.
“The merits of the plaintiffs’ claims are for a later day, but we are asking this court to allow these plaintiffs the constitutional right to their day in court,” he said.
Welle concluded by asking the court to reverse the earlier dismissal and send the case back to Superior Court for further proceedings.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at: twitter.com/FDNMlocal. The Associated Press contributed to this report.