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Kids’ climate lawsuit to go before Alaska court

State supreme court will determine whether case that accuses government of endangering public welfare can proceed.

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Glaciers terminus in the Kenai Mountains, Alaska.

Shrinking glaciers are one obvious sign of climate change in Alaska.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Alaska’s supreme court will hear arguments on 9 October in a climate lawsuit that accuses the state government of violating the rights of young people by encouraging the use of fossil fuels.

Sixteen children and young adults, ranging in age from 7 to 22, filed the lawsuit. They argue that the state of Alaska has a constitutional responsibility to protect the climate as a public resource for future generations. Their goal is to overturn a state law enacted in 2010 to promote fossil-fuel development.

The supreme-court hearing will determine whether the lawsuit, known as Sinnok v. Alaska, can go to trial.

“The government is actively promoting fossil fuels,” says Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit group in Eugene, Oregon, that is aiding the plaintiffs. “We are saying that it’s the court’s job to review the constitutionality of laws and policies that are being implemented by the state, and that are putting peoples’ lives and homes in danger.”

The Alaska case is one of several legal challenges filed by young environmentalists — and their lawyers — around the world. Most recently, on 23 September, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other children submitted a complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, arguing that Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey have violated their human rights by failing to adequately address climate change.

And a decision is expected soon in the landmark climate case Juliana v. United States. The children and young adults who brought the suit allege that the US government has impinged on their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by promoting fossil-fuel consumption. A federal appeals court in San Francisco, California, is set to rule on whether the lawsuit — one of several filed with help from Our Children’s Trust — can proceed to trial. Many legal experts expect the case to end up before the US Supreme Court.

Second try

The Alaska case is patterned after a similar lawsuit filed in 2011, in which Alaskan children argued that the state had violated their rights by failing to control greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2014, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed the case because it did not challenge specific actions by the government — unlike the latest suit.

If the young plaintiffs in the Sinnok case succeed in forcing the state of Alaska to take stronger action against climate change, their victory would be unprecedented, says Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York. But regardless of their ultimate outcomes, he says, kids’ climate lawsuits around the world have succeeded in attracting media coverage and increasing public discourse on climate change.

“If you look at the overall impact of these youth lawsuits against state governments,” Burger says, “you’ll find a great deal of that kind of indirect effect.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03037-x

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