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Eight young people are suing Alaska to stop a major natural gas project

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Young people are suing the state of Alaska to block a controversial natural gas project. They argue more fossil fuel development will make human-driven climate change worse. Alaska Public Media's Kavitha George reports.

KAVITHA GEORGE, BYLINE: Linnea Lentfer is a plaintiff in the Alaska lawsuit. She grew up in Gustavus, a town of about 700 people tucked into the vast scenic wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska. Lentfer was raised with a deep sense of connection to the environment. That's what hooked her father, who first visited as a teenager.

LINNEA LENTFER: Fell in love with the place and then stayed for the community.

GEORGE: But she says climate change is making her hometown unrecognizable. Glaciers surrounding the town are rapidly retreating. Drought and warming oceans threaten the salmon her family fishes for each summer. Lentfer is now 20 and a college student in Minnesota. She says she'd like to return to Gustavus one day, but worries that the things she loves best about the community are disappearing.

LENTFER: There's no way that I can imagine that being a realistic thing, to think that I would be able to raise children the same way I was raised, with how fast things are changing.

GEORGE: Lentfer is 1 of 8 Alaskans between the ages of 11 and 22 who have sued the state over climate change. They argue the Alaska Constitution includes a right to a livable climate and the state is violating that right by trying to build a massive new natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. The actual pipeline is not likely to be built anytime soon. Alaska leaders have argued over the project for four decades. But Andrew Welle, an attorney representing the young plaintiffs, says the state shouldn't even pursue it.

ANDREW WELLE: This project would absolutely explode Alaska's emissions at a time when scientists are telling us we need to be moving exactly in the opposite direction and reducing climate pollution as fast as possible.

GEORGE: Welle is a senior attorney for Our Children's Trust. The Oregon-based nonprofit has filed dozens of lawsuits around the country on behalf of young people demanding more action on climate change. The strategy has had mixed results. Our Children's Trust won a similar lawsuit in Montana last summer, but just last month, an appeals court dismissed its landmark case against the federal government, Juliana v. United States.

The balance between fossil fuel development and climate change is particularly sensitive in Alaska. The state is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country, but the oil industry is a key driver of its economy. Leila Kimbrell is head of the Alaska Resource Development Council. She says the right to use resources like natural gas was guaranteed when Alaska became a state.

LEILA KIMBRELL: The agreement was that, you know, the state would rely on the development of its natural resources so as not to become wholly reliant on the federal government.

GEORGE: In a statement, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor called the lawsuit misguided. Two previous lawsuits filed by Our Children's Trust were dismissed by the Alaska Supreme Court. But Bruce Botelho, a former state attorney general, says this case has a better chance of making it to trial.

BRUCE BOTELHO: My sense is that will survive a motion to dismiss. How much farther it will get is hard to say.

GEORGE: Botelho says there is a good argument to be made that the Alaska Constitution does provide the right to a livable climate. But even if the court recognizes that right, he says that doesn't necessarily mean it would stop all fossil fuel development.

BOTELHO: No right in the constitution is absolute.

GEORGE: Regardless of outcome, these youth lawsuits have an impact, says Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

MICHAEL BURGER: Just by virtue of bringing these cases, mobilizing public attention, putting the impacts and the issues of climate change front and center, I think that these cases have been very high impact even where they have lost in court.

GEORGE: The Alaska lawsuit is awaiting action in state Superior Court.

For NPR News, I'm Kavitha George in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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