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Our Children's Trust Alaska case

Some of the 16 plaintiffs in Sagoonick v. State of Alaska gathered at the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage for oral arguments in October 2019. (Photo: Our Children's Trust/Twitter)

'This Is Not Over': Alaska Supreme Court Rejects Youth Climate Case

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

Jessica Corbett

Young Alaskans—and their attorneys—vowed to keep fighting Friday after the Alaska Supreme Court's split decision denying their right to bring a constitutional case challenging the state's fossil fuels policy.

"Despite today's decision, we will keep fighting for Alaska's climate future."

"By refusing to even hear our case, the court is bending to the political will of politicians rather than working towards justice for our generation and future generations," declared 24-year-old Griffin Plush, one of the 16 plaintiffs, who include Alaska Natives.

"The risk to our communities from worsening climate change is real, and ignoring the reality on the ground will not avoid that risk, only moving away from burning fossil fuels will," he said. "Despite today's decision, we will keep fighting for Alaska's climate future. This is not over."

Sagoonick v. State of Alaska was first filed in August 2017 and argued in October 2019. Only one of the three justices behind the majority decision issued Friday—Daniel Winfree—is still on the court; Joel Bolger and Craig Stowers are now retired.

The two justices who sided with the young Alaskans, Susan Carney and Peter Maassen, remain on the court. In their dissent, the pair expressed the belief that "a balanced consideration of prudential doctrines requires that we explicitly recognize a constitutional right to a livable climate—arguably the bare minimum when it comes to the inherent human rights to which the Alaska Constitution is dedicated."

"The law requires that the state, in pursuing its energy policy, recognize individual Alaskans' constitutional right to a livable climate," the justices added. "A declaratory judgment to that effect would be an admittedly small step in the daunting project of focusing governmental response to this existential crisis. But it is a step we can and should take."

The importance of legal action was echoed Friday by Andrew Welle—Our Children's Trust senior staff attorney and lead counsel for the plaintiffs—who said that "with today's decision, a majority of the Alaska Supreme Court betrayed their duty to safeguard the constitutional rights of these youth and serve as a check on the conduct of the state."

"The decision not only allows Alaska's government to continue destroying the conditions necessary for human life, throwing literal and figurative fuel on the fire of an already critical climate crisis, it also makes the court complicit in that conduct, further endangering the health, safety, and futures of Alaskan children," Welle added. "The climate crisis requires urgent justice for Alaska's youth and we will not stop fighting for justice on their behalf."

Our Children's Trust is known for various youth climate cases including Juliana v. United States. Julia Olson—the group's chief legal counsel and lead counsel in Juliana—framed the decision out of Alaska as a "2-1 win for the youth from the active justices on this court."

"One day soon, it will be the majority opinion," she said, noting that "more and more judges around the country and the world are finally embracing their constitutional role to be a check on the political branches of government that are destroying the planet and lives of children."

While calling out the majority in this case, Olson also noted some famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions:

Today, Justice Winfree and two of his retired colleagues told Alaskans that their politicians have unchecked permission to continue to set policy that explicitly prioritizes the monied interests of fossil fuel development over the lives and health and safety of children. On no other policy issue that so blatantly destroys lives and violates constitutional rights would this court completely defer to the Legislature's decision and tell citizens who are being harmed by their own government's actions that they have no right to even have their claims heard by the judiciary, the very body charged by our nation's founding fathers with enforcing the Constitution and protecting the rights of the people. In time, today's decision will join such egregious denials of human rights as Dred Scott and Korematsu in the trash bin of judicial history.

Lead plaintiff Summer Sagoonick on Friday underscored the urgency of their case.

"With climate change worsening with every season of Alaska's continuing promotion of fossil fuels, it is hard to tell how long our sustainable life may last," Sagoonick said. "We count on our wildlife and land for survival. Because of Alaska's continuing emissions, we have no choice but to work harder for what we need, whether it's food, warmth, or transportation."

"These youth are resolute in their quest for climate justice."

"Our irreplaceable peoples, lands, cultures, and ecosystems are infinitely more precious than the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry, which threatens our state economy and our way of life," Sagoonick added. "It will only be a matter of time until the state's promotion of fossil fuels irreversibly alters the climate we depend on for our lives and culture."

The 20-year-old also said she was "very disappointed" with the court's decision but "proud" of the other young people involved in the case "for raising their voices."

According to Welle, "These youth are resolute in their quest for climate justice."

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," he said, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

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