Can courts force action on climate change? Sixteen young Alaskans hope so.

The young plaintiffs in Sinnok v State of Alaska gathered with their attorneys and supporters outside the Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage after oral arguments on Monday, April 30. The state is asking the court to dismiss their lawsuit. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

An Anchorage judge heard arguments Monday on whether a lawsuit brought by sixteen young Alaskans suing the state over climate change should advance.

The plaintiffs in the case, Sinnok v. State of Alaska, argue the state is violating their constitutional rights by failing to limit greenhouse gas emissions – and they’re asking the courts to intervene.

But the state says climate change policies must be decided by the legislature and the executive branch, not the courts.

Listen now

About a dozen of the young plaintiffs, ranging in age from elementary school to their early 20s, sat in the front row of the small courtroom during the hour-long arguments.

They watched as Assistant Attorney General Seth Beausang, arguing for the state, asked the court to dismiss the case entirely. Beausang said past court rulings have established that only the elected branches of government can balance the impacts of climate change against other interests, like economic development.

“The court said that weighing all those interests was a policy decision entrusted to the political branches, and not to the courts,” Beausang said.

That ruling came in a similar climate change case, Kanuk v State of Alaska, dismissed by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2014.

That case and this new one were both brought with the help of an Oregon-based nonprofit, Our Children’s Trust, which has filed legal actions on behalf of young people across the country demanding action on climate change.

The young plaintiffs in this case say that in the years since the 2014 Supreme Court ruling, Alaska has implemented a de facto climate policy by continuing to encourage activities like oil and gas production. Attorney Andrew Welle of Our Children’s Trust, argued that this policy violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, requiring the courts to step in.

“The state’s climate and energy policy is causing catastrophic harm to Alaska’s climate system and endangering plaintiff’s lives and liberties and their very futures,” Welle said. “These claims are squarely within the authority of the court.”

Bob Shavelson is with the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper. His five- and eight-year-old daughters are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Standing in the hallway outside the courtroom after the hearing, he said the case is about much more than which branch of government is responsible for policymaking.

“I think it’s one of the most important lawsuits, if not in the past decade in Alaska, in the state’s entire history,” Shavelson said. “We’re really talking about the future of Alaska here.”

Alaska Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller will decide whether the case can move forward. Attorneys for both sides said they expect a ruling within the next six months.