College Freshman Nelson Kanuk's Climate Change Law Suit Reaches Alaskan Supreme Court

| by Will Hagle

Nelson Kanuk was a senior at Sitka, Alaska’s Mt. Edgecumbe’s High School last year when he sued his home state for its failure to take effect measures against climate change. Kanuk now attends The University of Alaska - Fairbanks, where he studies criminal justice.

Kanuk’s case gained enough traction that it was ultimately taken before the Alaska Supreme Court earlier this month.

The Alaskan Supreme Court’s review of the case makes it the most high-profile environmental case of its kind. The suit alleges that the state should take an active, responsible role in the fight against climate and environmental change.

Kanuk’s argument against the state cites the “public trust doctrine,” which states that states must protect those natural areas and resources that cannot be claimed for private ownership. Kanuk claims that the atmosphere should be considered under this public trust doctrine, which typically protects lakes, forests and areas designated for hunting. The essential issue at stake is whether or not the government — in this case, specifically the government of Alaska — has an obligation to protect the atmosphere, and/or the jursidiction to do so.

Kanuk’s legal action is linked to his personal upbringing and interests. He grew up in the Eskimo village of Kipnuk, a rural area that is most easily accessible by river. The river near Kipnuk’s family home eventually rose high enough to destroy the yard, and the family was forced to move to a new city. Whether or not the rising waters of the river were connected to climate change is up for debate — as the house was built on permafrost.  

In a video released by environmental group Our Children’s Trust, supporters of the lawsuit, Kanuk explained his connection to environmental change and the impact its had on his life. “[My village] is not really connected to the outside world, but I was always interested in what’s going on all around us. I was curious in climate change and how it was affecting us. I didn’t realize how bad it was. When I finally understood what climate change was, I thought, what can I do to help?” Kanuk said in the video. 

Due to the complex nature of the suit, as well as the difficult questions about government obligation and jurisdiction that it raises, it’s unlikely that the Court will rule in Kanuk’s favor. However, the case certainly raises important issues about the government’s role in climate change, and will hopefully increase support for these issues to be investigated at various levels.