A house on Shishmaref Island after a coastal storm. Photo: AP

Sixteen young adults are taking Alaska’s governor to court, alleging that the state is abdicating its responsibility in addressing climate change. In doing so, they argue the state is threatening their fundamental human rights and not doing due diligence to protect the land for the benefit of everyone.

“Being involved with this case is one step to tell the Alaska state government that we need to act on climate change and stop the use of fossil fuels,” Esau Sinnok, one of the plaintiffs, told Earther. “The state is putting the short-term interest of the oil and gas industry above those of Alaskan youths’ future.”

In Sinnok’s case, all the carbon emissions from extracting and burning fossil fuels is causing the land under his feet to disappear. Rising temperatures have caused sea ice that once kept the ocean at bay from Shishmaref Island’s soft shores to disappear. That’s allowed storm surge to bite off a chunk of the whale-tail shaped island that sits off the Seward Peninsula each year. Coastal erosion rates average three to five feet per year, but a single severe storm can cause upwards of 50 feet of erosion on the 7.25-square mile island.

Sinnok, 20, is the latest generation in a line of Inupiaq Eskimos who have inhabited the Shishmaref islands and peninsula for upwards of 4,000 years. The village on Shishmaref voted to move inland last year, making the islanders some of the first climate refugees in the U.S. (but almost certainly not the last). But rising seas and continued erosion are likely to ultimately swallow the island that’s been continuously inhabited for 400 years.

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The story of Shishmaref is heartbreaking and yet it’s playing out across Alaska as climate change disrupts everything. Other plaintiffs in the case—all of them are between the ages of 7 and 20—argue that climate change is wreaking havoc on their homes, cultures, economies, and even their diets.

“Native culture is such an important facet of life in Alaska,” Andrew Welle, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust who is arguing the cause, told Earther. “Some of their rights are fundamentally threatened by climate change. It does play into our constitutional argument. It fundamentally changes these plaintiffs’ cultural identities.”

Even the seemingly simple pleasure of just enjoying the natural beauty of Alaska will be lost. Here’s an excerpt from the complaint about Linnea L., a 14-year-old resident of Gustav, who is already losing some of the most basic pleasures of having access to the outdoors:

Linnea also enjoys skiing in the winter, but with the warming climate, is able to ski less and less. Three of the past four winters, Linnea has barely been able to go skiing at all.

Linnea is emotionally harmed by the losses she has already experienced from climate change and has anxiety and fears that climate change is only going to worsen without government action.

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This and the arguments put forth by the other plaintiffs are intended to show that Alaska is violating its own constitution and what’s called the “public trust doctrine.” The doctrine traces back to the Byzantine empire and runs through the Magna Carta. It’s a large part of U.S. law and is enshrined in Alaska’s constitution in Article 8, which states that “wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”

The government of Alaska has known about the effects of climate change
since 1998 according to the court filing, which also lays out a host of other instances where the state has acknowledged the threat it poses to natural resources. Despite the perilous conditions, the state has continued its lucrative oil and gas leasing program and done little to slow its carbon emissions.

Those emissions are in turn upending the climate and access to resources (and in some cases, wiping them out completely). Our Children’s Trust has launched a multi-pronged suite of lawsuits across the U.S. making similar arguments and asking states and the federal government to provide what Welle said is “science-based relief” when it comes to climate change. That means cutting carbon emissions dramatically, and, based on work by climate scientist James Hansen, finding ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million (they’re currently above 400 ppm).

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The group has scored some legal victories and has a case in motion against Donald Trump. But the Alaska case is particularly poignant because of how severe the impacts of climate change are, and the myriad ways in which they disrupt Native Alaskans’ ways of life.

“They’re looking at a world markedly different than their forebears and ancestors have ever experienced and it’s the court’s job to step in,” Welle said.

The case doesn’t advocate for any particular solution to reduce emissions but if the plaintiffs win, it would mean winding down oil and gas production in the state. That’s in direct opposition to the federal government, which is thinking of ramping up production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which would unleash a host of other local environmental problems).

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Sinnok said he’d also like to see Alaska adopt a more aggressive climate adaptation plan that includes local input as well as the best available science. Even with a good plan in place, it’s possible that the ocean could still swamp Shishmaref Island in the coming century. That’s why Sinnok said he’s also not just fighting for Shishmaref’s future, but the future for people across the state.

“My home in the next few decades will be gone, the island will be underwater,” he said. “I don’t want that for any other communities here in Alaska.”