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When will Alaska’s youth finally be heard on the climate crisis?

When will Alaska’s youth finally be heard on the climate crisis?

Alaska Supreme Court narrowly dismisses youths’ climate change lawsuit

By Cassidy Austin-Merlino and Shanelle Afcan

Updated: 58Minutes ago Published: 58Minutes ago

Alaskan youth are bewildered. We are angry, scared, and exhausted. We watched with deep anxiety and frustration as our state government continued to prioritize fossil fuels over our futures, causing devastating harms such as melting permafrost and worsening wildfires, coastal erosion and loss of river and sea ice.

Since more than two decades, we have been fighting for the well-being, safety, and sustainable life of our villages, towns, and cities in the halls our government. We, young Alaskans, have been tirelessly fighting for climate justice through the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA).

Since AYEA’s founding in 1998, thousands of Alaska youths have engaged in efforts urging Alaska’s political branches to stop actively contributing to the growing climate crisis through policies, protections of our sacred lands and waters, and more. In 2005, 150 Alaskan cities and villages collected 5,000 signatures from youths supporting climate action. In 2017, teens petitioned the state to reduce Alaska’s fossil fuel emissions. Young Alaskans organized climate strikes in the state in 2019 and 2020. They joined more than 4 million young people from around the world and demanded a transition to 100% renewable, clean energy. In 2021, we met with Alaska’s leadership, asking for legislation to transition off of fossil fuels. Our government has been repeatedly urged by Alaska’s youth to address the climate crisis as a serious emergency and change its course. Despite all these efforts, the government of Alaska continues its disregard for our right to a healthy climate.

We are in a critical time to protect our rights to a safe environment in Alaska as young people. We can’t afford to wait.

The Alaska Supreme Court denied a petition to rehear the youth-led constitutional climate case on February 25, Sagoonick v. State of Alaska. Brought by 16 young Alaskans, the youth plaintiffs’ case challenged the state’s policies that promote fossil fuels for causing Alaska’s climate crisis and endangering our health, safety, communities, cultures and overall futures as Alaskans.

Jan. 28, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in a split verdict that the courthouse doors were closed to these young Alaskans. Three out of five justices decided that the courts couldn’t hear evidence of their harm from the actions of the government.

The majority also said that Alaska’s government had already considered the youths’ concerns when they met with AYEA in 2017 and encouraged us to continue advocating our cause to the executive and legislative branches. The question of what that meeting accomplished and what actions were taken to show that Alaska cares for its young people is still open to debate. Did our government reverse course? Are they now contributing to the climate crisis which threatens our very futures. Did they stop promoting policies that cause us harm? It was only a shallow speech. It is clearer now more than ever that the legislative and executive branches will continue putting fossil fuels over our lives if the third branch of government — our courts — won’t even allow youths through the courthouse doors. Our courts have a duty to protect our rights but they must first hear our claims.

But there is still hope. The court could have established a constitutional right for livable climate if it had just one justice. However, two of the justices in this case dissented.

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The dissent shows that the tide of climate justice in Alaska’s courts is turning, but first we need Alaska’s courts to open their doors to us now. We have no choice but fight the Legislature and the executive to protect our constitutional rights. Only the judicial branches can protect our rights. Our legal fight for climate justice is not over, but the question remains: when will Alaska’s courts allow our voices to be heard?

Shanelle Afcan is a Nunam-Iqua AYEA Graduate.

Cassidy Austin Merlino is a McCarthy AYEA Graduate.

AYEA is a program offered by The Alaska Center Education Fund.

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