Do current and future generations have a constitutional right to a safe climate? Sixteen youth plaintiffs filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against their state government in 2017 to argue that we do have such a right.
In Sagoonick v. State of Alaska, the young plaintiffs assert that Alaska's fossil fuel energy policy and the State-authorized fossil fuel development and ensuing greenhouse gas emissions that result have caused and contributed to Alaska's climate crisis. The policies have placed the youth plaintiffs in danger and are harming their health, safety, homes, culture, and Native villages in violation of Alaska's Constitution.
On January 28, 2022, in a split 3-2 decision, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled against the young plaintiffs. On February 7, the youth plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing of their case, asking the Court to reconsider its decision and allow their case to go forward. The youth were disappointed about the February 25 denial of their petition, but the fight is far from over.
State lawmakers have taken note of how close the decision in Sagoonick was. Representative Ben Carpenter, a Republican from the fossil-fuel embracing town of Nikiski, took to the House Floor to make a note of this. Representative Carpenter stated, "this isn't going away" and that "the implication here...is that State...oil exploration policy...our energy policies...need to be adjusted for an individual's right to have a safe climate."
While some lawmakers may take the close decision as a warning that the state's petroleum industry is under attack by the youth, Carpenter's words offered another assessment - sobering to some - that the courts are coming around to the idea of a right to a safe climate.
Suppose an industry or a policy effectively uses our atmosphere as a dumping place for a chemical byproduct that is enough quantity can put into question the ability of mammals to survive on the planet. In that case, you bet today's young people should try their level best to stop any additional inputs of that chemical byproduct. The courts are taking note of the danger ahead if we cannot radically decrease the emissions of CO2 and methane into the air. Too much is at stake for this issue to just go away. Expect future lawsuits, legislation, and petitions for rulemaking from the young people of our state and nation.
Government regulations on industry are in place to protect our health and, ultimately, our individual freedom. The brave youth plaintiffs in Sagoonick v. State of Alaska are fighting for our individual health, individual freedom, and collective health and freedom. These youth are true patriots, and their actions resonate with other youth. Change is coming.
The Alaska Center
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