16 young Alaskans sue the government over climate change

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - On Wednesday in the Boney Courthouse, the Supreme Courtroom on the 5th floor was filled with people waiting to see 16 young Alaskans continue a lawsuit they’ve appealed with the State Government. The case they're making: that the government is responsible for climate change in the state.

The plaintiffs in the case are all between the ages of 7 and 22. One them is Esau Sinnok, from Shishmaref. After the hearing, he and the rest introduced themselves outside the courtroom. He read a poem he wrote about his home’s destruction that finished with this.

“I’m here today because the seals, walrus, whales, land, sea, my home, cannot speak English,” Sinnok read.

In 2016, Shishmaref voted to relocate the village because of erosion related to rising sea levels.

Inside the packed courtroom, Andrew Welle represented the plaintiffs’ case. He appealed to the judges that climate change caused by Alaska’s continued development of fossil fuel resources is an infringement of the constitutional right to live because of its effect on the environment.

“The question of justiciability of that challenge should be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor,” he said, “especially here, where the promotion of fossil fuels is exacerbating climate change and already harming these plaintiffs in profound ways, threatening their health, their safety, and for some of these plaintiffs, the very existence of their communities and culture.”

The four judges questioned Welle on current conservation policies already in place, but Welle alleged they are being overlooked by the state to further promote fossil fuel research.

They also asked him what the goal is. Welle responded quoting scientific facts and studies, saying policies need to be changed in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to 0% by 2050.

Nobody from the state attending the hearing today. They sent their own attorney, Anna Jay in their place.

The court gave each side 30 minutes to appeal their case. Jay wrapped up in about 20. Her main point is that it’s not the job for the judiciary to shape policy, but rather to be a check on the other branches as it was originally intended.

“The reason the court can’t do that is because, as an institution, the court is simply not equipped to make those kinds of decisions,” Jay said, “The court can’t commission scientific studies, it can’t consult with other institutions or agencies, it can’t solicit public opinion on these issues.”

Before the court let out, Justice Peter Maassen, weighed in with more references to the Constitution.

“Given the fact that there’s an inherent right to enjoyment or rewards of industry, opportunities, and protection of the law, and then we have the management of natural resources for the development of the state - can’t someone else come in and say I’ve got the constitutional right to a job?” Justice Maassen said about infringing on people in the oil industry’s rights.

The justices said they would break for advisement and release their ruling at a a later date.

After the hearing was over, the people inside went to the front of the courthouse to meet the plaintiffs and learn more about their stories.

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