Regional youth petition state to take action on climate change
Summer Sagoonick, a junior student from Unalakleet, was among 18 Alaska youth who last week presented a 114-page petition to Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig, calling on the Dept. to fulfill its “legal obligation and authority to do its part to protect the citizens of Alaska from catastrophic climate change.”
The petition demands that the DEC lead effort to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by implementing “an enforceable, effective carbon dioxide and GHG reduction strategy that is based on the best climate science and is aimed at ensuring that Alaska does its part to restore the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million by 2100.”
“ Such a rule is necessary in order to ensure that the worst impacts of climate change and ocean acidification are avoided and do not cause further catastrophic and irreversible harm to present and future generations of Alaskan youth,” the document says.
The 15 youth petitioners, who signed the petition, hailed from all across the state of Alaska. They were supported by the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action and Our Children’s Trust in formulating and submitting the petition on August 28 to Hartig in Anchorage. Also part of the petition was Esau Sinnok, a 20-year-old climate activist from Shishmaref.
Summer Sagoonick, the 16-year-old youth from Unalakleet, said in an interview with The Nome Nugget that erosion at her home town and also her grandparents’ home of Shaktoolik alerted her to the realities of climate change and its impacts on her future.
During her address to Commissioner Hartig, she spoke of erosion, floods and washed out roads that make life during floods and storm events dangerous for her community and Shaktoolik. Sagoonick, said she was given three Eskimo names: Ikkugaaq and Abuzunaq after two esteemed Elders and Massu from her grandfather Palmer Sagoonick. She made the connection to the survival of her subsistence lifestyle and culture. “I know this petition cannot change things over night, but I do hope that sooner than later they will take action so that future generations can stay in our home towns and help preserve our subsistence culture,” Sagoonick said.
She got involved with climate issues through Our Children’s Trust, a national environmental group. Andrew Welle, a staff attorney with the Oregon-based group said that the organization is “dedicated to securing the right to a safe and stable climate system for today’s youth and for future generations. We assist and provide support to youth, other nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations, and local attorneys throughout the United States and the world in employing legal systems to secure that right through petitions, like the one recently filed in Alaska, and litigation.”
Welle explained that in 2011, the Our Children’s Trust and other lawyers supported six Alaskan children in a lawsuit against the State of Alaska and the Dept. of Natural Resources for “violating the youths’ rights under the public trust doctrine which is codified in the Alaska Constitution, and which holds that the state holds crucial natural resources in trust for present and future generations of Alaska,” he said in an email to the Nugget.
He said that the state, in addition to other duties under the public trust doctrine, has to protect those resources from “substantial impairment.”
The case went to the Alaska Supreme Court in 2014. The court recognized the state government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to the atmosphere and climate change, but ultimately ruled that the requested court-ordered emissions reduction strategy was an issue for the legislative and executive branches, rather than the courts, at least “in the first instance.”
The next step was drafting the petition that was submitted to the DEC last week.
Now the DEC has 30 days – from August 28 on - to respond to the petition or to deny it.
The hope of the petitioners is that the DEC would adopt the proposed rule, which asks for emission reductions to at least 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; to provide a carbon accounting system and means to annually publish reports on greenhouse gas emissions and to create a climate action plan to meet reduction requirements.
The petition also demands that after DEC adopts the rules and regulations, the Department “shall recommend to the Legislature the adoption of a statute requiring the emissions reductions, interim benchmarks, carbon accounting and inventory, and Climate Action Plan required hereby.”
Asked how the youth were involved in formulating such a legally complicated document, Welle responded, “Each of the petitioners involved had contacted one of the organizations, attorneys, or supporting groups involved in the petition over the past couple of years expressing interest in opportunities to get the State of Alaska to do its part in addressing the climate crisis.”
He said that the Our Children’s Trust and its partners in Alaska conducted interviews with each of the petitioners, who are from all across the state and who told them at length about how climate change impacts their lives and what climate change in Alaska means to them. “The Petition really tries to tell that story through its discussion of the impacts of climate change across Alaska,” Welle said.
Summer Sagoonick enjoys moose hunting, berry picking and fishing for silver salmon, activities she hopes to preserve for future generations. She said in light of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, it scares her to think that a similar disaster could happen here in this region. “One big storm like that could wipe out an entire village,” she said. “I really hope this petition will spur action, soon.”