In split decision, Alaska Supreme Court dismisses climate change case

In a split 3-2 decision, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the state’s energy policies over objections they are exacerbating climate change.
Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 4:50 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - In a split 3-2 decision, the Alaska Supreme Court has dismissed a constitutional challenge to the state’s energy policies over objections that they are exacerbating climate change.

Sixteen young plaintiffs challenged a state law that promotes the development of Alaska’s fossil fuels. They argued that is helping cause climate change, which in turn, is negatively impacting subsistence hunting and fishing and leading to coastal erosion and more severe wildfires in Alaska.

Justices Joel Bolger, Craig Stowers and Daniel Winfree wrote the court’s majority opinion. They sided with the state of Alaska, which argued that the plaintiffs’ concerns should really be addressed by the Alaska Legislature and the executive branch, as these are policy questions.

The plaintiffs raised “compelling concerns” about climate change, those justices wrote, but the Legislature has consistently stated that “continuing resource development in an environmentally and socially responsible manner is essential to Alaska’s economy and residents.”

The Alaska Constitution says that the state should develop its resources for “the maximum benefit of its people.” The justices wrote in the majority opinion that the Legislature has interpreted that to promote developing the state’s nonrenewable resources.

Justices Peter Maassen and Susan Carney wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing that the “maximum benefit” provision could also imply the need for the conservation.

“The plaintiffs’ amended complaint asked for a declaratory judgment that the Alaska Constitution recognizes the right to a climate system that is healthy enough to “sustain human life, liberty, and dignity. I agree that it does,” the dissenting opinion said.

Griffin Plush, a Seward-born climate activist, was disappointed by the court’s decision after the legal challenge was filed five years ago, which called for the state to reduce its carbon emissions. He said climate change is impacting the health and lives of Alaskans and he was frustrated the justices dismissed the case.

“The court is really abdicating its responsibility,” Plush said.

He was encouraged, though, by the dissenting opinion and said it is a matter now of convincing the other justices on the court to make a different decision.

“We have a right to a stable climate. We have a right to a healthy future,” Plush argued.

Andrew Welle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said they may ask the court to reconsider Friday’s ruling. He noted that two of the justices who wrote the majority opinion have since retired with two others taking their places.

In 2014, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed a similar case, but Welle said this challenge is different: It’s not about inaction over climate change, but how the plaintiffs allege that Alaska is actively exacerbating it.

“The state is continuing to throw fuel onto the fire of the climate crisis as a matter of official state policy,” Welle argued.

The three justices who wrote the court’s majority opinion noted that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation had substantially addressed a petition filed by the plaintiffs in 2017 that called for the state to reduce carbon emissions by “at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.″

The department denied that petition, but said that addressing climate change is a priority for the state.

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