Lawyers spar over whether young Alaskans’ climate lawsuit can move forward

Attorney Andrew Welle argues before the Alaska Supreme Court on behalf of 16 young Alaskans hoping to change the state’s policy on fossil fuels and climate change. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could ultimately change the state’s approach to climate change and fossil fuel production.

The case, Sinnok v. State of Alaska, is being brought by 16 young Alaskans arguing that current policy violates their right to “a stable climate system” under the state constitution.

During oral arguments, attorney Andrew Welle said the judiciary has a duty to clarify how the Alaska Constitution should guide state government’s approach to climate change:

“A declaration that state’s actions contributing to climate change in the face of the emergency that’s facing these plaintiffs is unconstitutional — it would, at minimum, tell the defendants what they can not do, and that is to continue to promote fossil fuels, knowing of its dangers to these young plaintiffs,” Welle said.

Welle is an attorney with Our Children’s Trust, an Ore.-based nonprofit that is pursuing a number of similar cases in states across the country, as well as a case against the federal government, Juliana vs. the United States.

The Alaska Supreme Court dismissed a similar case in 2014, which was also backed by Our Children’s Trust. Then, the court ruled that making state climate policy isn’t the judiciary branch’s job. They said it’s something the governor’s office, state agencies and the legislature should address, instead.

Welle argued that this time, they’re bringing a different case. Instead of challenging the state’s lack of action on climate change, they’re challenging its policy promoting fossil fuel production.

Anna Jay, the attorney representing the state, argued the case should still be dismissed.

“Alleging that the state has affirmatively supported greenhouse gas emissions as opposed to merely failing to prevent them is simply another way of describing the same policy decision,” Jay said.

If the Alaska Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, they will then go to trial against the state.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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