Establishing the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate
for all present and future generations

Alaska


December 2011, TRUST Alaska: Nelson Kanuk is fighting climate change to save the Alaska tundra and a way of life for his community. Watch and share Nelson's video by clicking the image above.

Legal Updates

September 25, 2014 - Youth Ask Alaska Supreme Court to Declare the Atmosphere a Public Trust Resource

On behalf of youth plaintiffs, the OUR CHILDREN’S TRUST legal team filed a Motion for Rehearing with the Alaska Supreme Court. Though the Alaska Supreme Court decision issued on September 12 is a strong one for climate recovery law in many respects, it did not provide the youth with the remedy they sought. While the decision confirms that the courts have the ability to issue a public trust designation for any resource, rejects many of the state's defenses against the youths’ case, and expressly states that the youth plaintiffs "made a good case" that the atmosphere should be designated as a public trust resource, the Court then ruled that it could not afford any relief that would have real consequence in resolving the dispute.

The Motion for Rehearing explains that there is indeed something of consequence that the Court can do, consistent with the rest of their decision: they can declare the atmosphere to be a public trust resource. This would be of immense consequence in resolving the dispute because it would tell the state how much they have to do with respect to the atmosphere; e.g., they must act as a trustee with respect to the atmosphere, preserving it for the benefit of future generations as well. That is a higher standard for the state than if the Court does not designate the atmosphere as a public trust resource. Thus, we have asked the Court to reconsider its decision in this respect.

September 12, 2014 - Alaska Supreme Court Moves Climate Law Forward, but Falls Short of Granting Youth the Remedies they Seek

The Alaska Supreme Court issued important rulings in a case brought by Alaskan youth to address climate disruption and protect their public trust resources in Alaska. While falling short of granting the relief sought by the youth, the Court wrote that the youth “make a good case. . . that the atmosphere is an asset of the public trust, with the State as trustee and the public as beneficiary”. The Court agreed with the youth that the State of Alaska has obligations to combat climate change, calling the science of anthropogenic climate change “compelling,” and citing numerous climate science studies and reports. The Court also stated that the atmosphere and the ecosystems it protects should be subject to constitutional protections even without the Court’s legal declaration. Nonetheless, the Court found that for “prudential reasons” it would not order the relief requested by the plaintiffs. The youth will ask the Court to reconsider its decision.

“The Court did some really good things in this decision today by ruling that people have the right to be in court because of harms from climate disruption and by underscoring the importance of the constitutional public trust doctrine,” said Brad DeNoble, counsel for the youth plaintiffs. “We will ask the Court to reconsider their essential role in enforcing the public trust. The Court agrees that the legislative and executive branches must protect all public trust resources, but when those branches fail to meet their fiduciary duty to do so, it has always been up to the courts to intervene. That is why our founders created the judiciary in the first place, as a check on the other branches. So, we will ask the Court to reconsider its essential role in enforcing the state’s public trust fiduciary responsibility as it relates to the atmosphere.”

“I hope the Court will take another look at whether they have a role to play in protecting our future. Determining our rights is critical when we are facing such life-changing impacts in our State from climate disruption,” reflected youth plaintiff Nelson Kanuk. “When our legislature and executive aren’t doing anything, where else can we turn? And how long must we wait and watch our ice melt and our food sources diminish? What if the political will comes when it’s too late? The Court should not wait to be a check on the other branches of government after it’s too late to matter. This is their moment and we’ll keep asking until someone answers with the help we need.”

Read the decision here.

Read the press release here.

October 3, 2013 - Alaska Supreme Court Hears Youths' Climate Change Case

Today, six youth plaintiffs’ climate change lawsuit was heard before the Alaska Supreme Court at Barrow High School, in a town known as Ground Zero for climate change impacts. The youth brought the case to force Alaska, which is on the front lines of the climate crisis, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to help reverse global warming and protect the state’s natural resources as required by the Alaska Constitution. As part of an educational program of the State’s Supreme Court, hundreds of high school students attended the oral arguments, held in the high school auditorium, and were able to ask the attorneys questions after the hearing.

Brad De Noble, plaintiffs’ attorney, argued that the Alaska Constitution requires the government to protect and preserve the atmosphere for the benefit of both current and future generations. The youth’s constitutional claims may be, what some scholars call, our best shot at a comprehensive approach to address the climate crisis, in contrast to a piecemeal approach of sector-by-sector greenhouse gas regulations. The youths’ case seeks to establish across-the-board protection of the atmosphere for current and future generations.

“The greatest threat to Alaska, its people and its natural resources is the impairment of the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” said De Noble. “The constitutional public trust doctrine imposes an affirmative fiduciary obligation on the State to reduce such emissions to ensure that the plaintiffs and future generations inherit a viable a viable atmosphere.”

In bringing this lawsuit, the youth are driven by their own struggles with climate change and by the alarming research of our nation’s top scientists. For more than two years, Nelson Kanuk, a freshman at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, and one of the youth plaintiffs in the case, has been speaking out about the impacts of climate change on his native community of Kipnuk and to his own home, which was destroyed due to flooding and melting permafrost earlier this year. Kanuk has spoken across the country as a witness of climate impacts and as a young representative of native and indigenous communities. Kanuk and fellow plaintiff, Katherine Dolma, a high school senior from Homer, both made the trek to Barrow to hear their case argued.

“It’s important that this case about our public trust is being unveiled in front of the students in Barrow, because it’s giving them an opportunity to truly see how serious this climate change battle is,” said Kanuk who was in the Barrow High School for the arguments. “It will show them whether or not their leaders are willing to protect what they are about to inherit, their world.”

“It is an incredible opportunity to have a case, which will directly impact our futures and the environment we will be living in, presented in front of youth,” agreed Dolma.

October 2, 2013 - TRUST Film Screening with Nelson Kanuk at Ilisagvik College

April 9, 2013 - Nelson Kanuk speaks on Current TV inside "The War Room"

Nelson Kanuk, an 18-year-old TRUST plaintiff from Kipnuk, Alaska speaks with Michael Shure inside "The War Room" about why he is suing the state of Alaska and the impacts of climate change to his coastal community.

We are getting scarily close to the tipping point on climate change. Permafrost, the soil that has been frozen for at least two years and covers a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere could start thawing at dangerous rates. All is takes is a global temperature rise of one degree. And if that happens, a huge amount of greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide, will be released into the atmosphere.

Climatologists have set the point of no return date at 2030. But harmful effects of the permafrost thaw are happening right now in places like Alaska. And residents aren’t standing idly by. Nelson Kanuk, an 18-year-old from Kipnuk, Alaska, is suing the state of Alaska for not doing enough to tackle climate change. Kanuk joins Michael Shure inside “The War Room” to discuss.

March 14, 2013 - As His Home Melts Away, Teenager Sues Alaska

In an All Things Considered, NPR article, Ed Ronco talks with Nelson Kanuk, Alaskan youth plaintiff, about the impacts of climate change in his Yu'pik village of Kipnuk, Alaska. A state court judge in Anchorage dismissed Kanuk's case, and he's appealing that decision. He says he understands some people might view an eroding riverbank as a consequence of living in a remote wilderness. But he doesn't see it that way. "It's not different from your home," Kanuk says. "Because that is where we live and it's part of who we are. It's the same with you."

December 10, 2012:Mt. Edgecumbe Senior Sues AK Over Climate Change

Nelson Kanuk, Alaskan youth plaintiff from Kipnuk, Alaska, is one of six Alaska youth, who are asking the state to consider the atmosphere a public trust, and to exercise their duty to protect it. “That is where my family grew up, and that is where my ancestors have lived,” Kanuk said. “We’re coming into a new world, where many cultures are constantly changing. But I believe it’s important to keep our feet in our homeland, and remember our roots and remember our traditional values.” Click HERE to read the entire article.

November 16, 2012:

Today, six young appellants and their guardians filed the opening brief of their appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. The appeal was filed after Superior Court Judge Sen K. Tan dismissed their constitutional climate change lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Read this press release here.

March 2012:

The trial court granted the government’s motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs will appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

February 15, 2012:

Brad DeNoble argued for the plaintiffs at the hearing on the State’s motion to dismiss.

August 2011:

The State of Alaska filed a motion to dismiss our case, and our Alaska attorneys are preparing a response.

July 2011:

The legal team working with OCT in Alaska, attorneys Brad DeNoble and Daniel Kruse, file an amended complaint against the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Impacts of Climate Change in Alaska

The United States Global Change Research Program (GCRP) states that average annual temperatures in Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate of the rest of the United States in the last 50 years, and as a result the impacts of climate change are more pronounced.

The impacts of global climate change will continue to be seen and felt as we continue into the century. The major impacts discussed in the complaint filed against the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources are listed below. Click for a brief explanation of these effects, and projections for the future.

1. Increased coastal erosion and displacement of coastal communities.

2. Melting of arctic tundra and taiga, resulting in damage to Alaska's infrastructure

3. Warmer summers resulting in insect infestations, more frequent and larger forest fires, and the alteration of Alaska's boreal forests

4. Decrease in arctic ice cover, resulting in loss of habitat and prey species for marine mammals

5. Changes in terrestrial and oceanic species abundance and diversity, resulting in the disruption of the subsistence way of life, among other adverse impacts

For Additional Information on Climate Change in Alaska:
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
USGS Climate Change and Alaska's Vegetation
EPA: Climate Change and Alaska
Alaska's Arctic Tundra: Feeling the Heat

Our Government Resources Page has information on climate change provided by local government.