‘It felt like we were all connected.’ Akiak teen returns from U.N. climate summit

Carl Smith, age 17, and his mother, Kimberly Smith of Akiak, returned to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta after traveling to New York City. Smith, along with 15 youths from around the world, filed a legal complaint alleging children’s rights violations from climate change. Mother and son are pictured in Bethel, Alaska on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

This week, 16 young people from a dozen countries filed a legal complaint about climate change with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The complaint alleges that five G20 countries are violating children’s rights by failing to curb fossil fuel emissions to try to restrain the climate crisis. The youth filed their complaint in New York City during the same week that the United Nations convened for its Climate Action Summit. One of the teenage petitioners traveled to the event from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Along the Kuskokwim River, many residents have lost someone who has fallen through the ice. As winters have grown warmer, that ice has become thinner and more unpredictable. For 17-year-old Carl Smith of Akiak, the climate crisis became real one night along this perilous path.

“A couple winters ago, when we traveled here to Bethel by truck,” Smith remembered. “And we couldn’t see the ice road because it was just watery and glare ice, and that was just scary because I thought we were going to fall through.”

Smith has been concerned about climate disruption for years, but his activism didn’t begin until this summer when he signed onto the legal complaint. As he describes it, lawyers were looking for youths to participate. One lawyer contacted well-known Akiak political activist Mike Williams Sr. asking if he knew a youth who would fit. Williams Sr. pointed to Smith.

“I’m always fishing, hunting with my mom, dad, grandparents, and uncle,” Smith said, explaining why Williams Sr. thought of him. “He sees that I don’t want to lose my subsistence lifestyle.”

Next, Smith talked with the lawyers, describing how he’s witnessed climate change disrupt his home. He told them: “During the summer we had a heat spell, and when we went out boating we just saw dead fish floating down the river, and there have been a lot of storms, and it’s slowly eroding away our village.”

Smith has watched fish camps wash into the river, and his neighbors’ homes threatened by the eroding riverbank. He’s laid sandbags in front of his own family’s fish camp to protect the bank and will soon need to move their fish rack away from the water.

The legal complaint alleges that this threat to safety and to Indigenous culture from climate change violates children’s rights by breaking the international treaty of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Smith, along with the 15 other youths from around the world, traveled to New York City to file the complaint. The long flight marked Smith’s first trip out of Alaska, and the city was a new experience.

“The skyscrapers, it makes us look small,” Smith observed. “You turn one way and it smells like food, and then you turn the other way and it smells like pee and trash and honeybucket.”

The youths came from a dozen countries. Smith found solidarity with the teenagers from the Marshall Islands, located in the central Pacific Ocean, saying, “We have, like, basically the same story.”

Both are small Indigenous communities watching their homes wash away under warming water, stronger storms, and increased flooding.

“This one kid, Ranton [Anjain], he lost his home when there was flooding from waves,” Smith described. “And I’m scared that all these people who live by the river, that they’re just going to have to move out, and they’re going to lose their homes and fish camps.”

Smith believes that because national leaders often live in urban areas, they don’t see these effects on smaller communities. Together, the youth called attention to the issue by marching through Lower Manhattan, striking for climate action. Thousands of people filled the streets. 

“It was amazing because we know that there are people out there supporting us, and it felt like we were all connected, like we were all family,” Smith said.

In Akiak, Smith plans to continue his activism by talking with the tribal council to ban plastic bags in his community.