Near Bear Glacier, Seward, Alaska.Andrew Harnik/AP

This article was originally featured in the Guardian and is shared here in collaboration with the Climate Desk

A group of eight young individuals from Alaska—the nation’s fastest-warming state—have initiated legal action against the Alaskan government, arguing that a significant new fossil fuel initiative breaches their constitutional rights within the state.

The government-owned Alaska Gasline Development Corporation has put forth a $38.7 billion gas export plan that would potentially triple the state’s greenhouse gas emissions for several decades, according to the legal complaint. Expert warnings over the necessity to promptly reduce fossil fuel extraction to ensure a sustainable future have been reiterated.

The proposed Alaska LNG Project would encompass the establishment of a gas treatment facility on the state’s North Slope, an 800-mile pipeline, and a liquefaction plant on the Kenai Peninsula aimed at preparing the gas for export to Asian markets.

As per the lawsuit, “[Y]oung plaintiffs are uniquely susceptible to and disproportionately impacted by the environmental consequences that would result from the Alaska LNG Project.”

In a unique maneuver in 2014, Alaska enacted legislation amending several state statutes to mandate the progress of the project.

“The repercussions of climate change are already severely affecting our means to sustain ourselves.”

The plaintiffs, ranging from 11 to 22 years of age, argue that the scheme—and the aforementioned legislation, in particular—violates two clauses of the Alaska constitution: the entitlement to safeguarded natural resources for “present and future generations,” and the right to be unrestricted from government encroachment on life, freedom, and property.

“The hastening of climate change that this project would bring about will impact the offerings and benefits of the land to my community,” expressed Summer Sagoonick, the 22-year-old lead plaintiff and a member of the Iñupiaq tribe. “I am relying on the judiciary to defend my rights.”

The Alaskan attorney general, Treg Taylor, stated that his office would meticulously examine the lawsuit and labeled it as a “misguided endeavor.”

“At first glance, it is apparent that this is an endeavor to impede the development of Alaska’s natural gas reserves under the guise of environmental safety,” he remarked. Taylor also highlighted a deficiency of gas in Alaska, asserting it as a “clean fuel.” Furthermore, he contended that if the state refrained from gas development, other locations would likely proceed, “without rigorous standards to preserve the environment.”

The case was initiated by Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit legal institution that secured a landmark climate triumph on behalf of young Montanans last year.

The legal complaint emphasizes that global warming is already inflicting adverse effects on the young Alaskans by “disrupting their natural maturation, disturbing their cultural traditions and identities, and restricting their access to the natural resources they depend on for sustenance.”

The plaintiffs’ food sources, such as fish and other species, are perishing due to climatic alterations. Frequent and intense wildfires are jeopardizing the residential areas of the youth and exposing them to hazardous pollutants from smoke. The understanding of the climate emergency has been detrimental to their health, the complaint states, along with other ramifications.

This impact is particularly severe for Native Alaskan youth, as highlighted in the complaint. This includes Sagoonick, who resides in the village of Unalakleet, which is vulnerable to floods triggered by climate changes, rapid permafrost degradation, and severe coastal erosion.

“The consequences of climate change are already significantly impeding our capacity to provide for our subsistence,” she remarked.

Sagoonick acquired skills in fishing, hunting, and gathering during her early years; she depends on local subsistence foods like salmon, seal, duck, and cranberries for the majority of her sustenance, as noted in the lawsuit. “As our waters warm and the land deteriorates, it poses a threat to our nourishment and our cultural rituals,” Sagoonick remarked.

The concept of the “right to a livable climate” is deemed as the “baseline” requirement by two state supreme court justices in an earlier dissent.

Tim Fitzpatrick from the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation emphasized: “AGDC is mandated by Alaska law to transform North Slope natural gas into a commercial asset due to the substantial environmental, economic, and energy security advantages it unlocks for our state.” He insisted that the project had been subjected to comprehensive environmental assessments by two successive administrations because of its evident and abundant benefits.

Four of the plaintiffs, including Sagoonick, were part of an Our Children’s Trust lawsuit against Alaska in 2017, asserting the state’s overall endorsement of fossil fuels violated the plaintiffs’ state constitutional rights.

In 2022, the Alaskan supreme court dismissed that case in a split 3-2 decision. Nevertheless, the two dissenting justices contended that under Alaska’s constitution, the “right to a livable climate” served as the “minimum” entitlement when it came to the rights enshrined in the state constitution.

“They are the sole justices from the Alaskan supreme court to tackle the issue of whether Alaska’s constitution guarantees the entitlement to a climate system that can sustain human life,” clarified Andrew Welle, senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust and counsel for the Alaskan litigants. “We are requesting a full court ruling on the same matter.”

Although the ruling did not set a precedent, Welle described it as a “compelling indication.”

This lawsuit marks the first instance in which Our Children’s Trust is contesting a specific fossil fuel initiative, rather than a general governmental support for fossil fuels. The state of Alaska is implicated as a defendant, alongside the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation and the corporation’s president, Frank Richards.

The youth plaintiffs aspire for the court to issue an injunction inhibiting the state from advancing with the project. Additionally, they aim to establish precedent acknowledging that fossil fuel infrastructure infringes upon the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

“This marks the initial phase in securing a broader outlook of climate justice for Alaska’s youth, establishing a foundation that can be expanded upon in future litigations and enforcement activities,” elaborated Welle.

Previously, Montana’s supreme court upheld a significant decision in a case brought by Our Children’s Trust, compelling state regulators to consider the climate emergency before endorsing permits for fossil fuel projects. The state has appealed against the ruling, and recently, the court announced that it would hear oral arguments in July.

Our Children’s Trust is also pursuing state-based lawsuits in Hawaii—which are scheduled for trial in June—as well as in Florida, Utah, and Virginia. Recently, the organization filed an amended version of a complaint against the federal government on behalf of Californian youth.

A federal appeals court recently granted the Biden administration’s request to nullify a groundbreaking federal lawsuit from Our Children’s Trust.