Teen Sues Alaska Because Climate Change Is Melting His Backyard

Nelson Kanuk is a high-school senior; in two years he might be a climate refugee.

Nelson Kanuk holds up two salmonberries picked from the ground near his western Alaska home. (Photo: Our Children's Trust)

Mar 18, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

A year or two.

That’s the long-term prognosis for the melting permafrost that surrounds 18-year-old Nelson Kanuk’s remote Alaskan home, which is a seven-hour motorboat ride from the nearest small town.

Not wanting to see his house wash away into the Kugkaktlik River, the high school senior has filed a lawsuit against Alaska, arguing that America’s 49th state should be, and must be, doing more to push back against climate change

The crux of Kanuk’s argument centers on the aforementioned river, according to NPR.

When the river ice moves out in the spring, it carves away at the bank. The permafrost usually helps keep the bank pretty sturdy, but it has begun to melt, and the bank has softened. Last spring, the Kanuks lost eight feet from their yard.

The deterioration only accelerated from there. Last summer, another five feet was ripped away from Kanuk’s yard.

Feeling helpless, but also itching to do something to protect the land that his family has lived on for generations, Kanuk hooked up with Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that is currently helping him with the court case.

“All we’re asking is for the government to take action to protect our future by creating a recovery climate plan, to hopefully reduce the carbon emissions in our future,” Kanuk said to KYUK in December.

Kanuk’s case isn’t all that dissimilar than one filed in Oregon in August.

In that case, 11-year-old Olivia Chernaik and 15-year-old Kelsey Juliana sued Governor John Kitzhaber and the state of Oregon, accusing them of “failing to protect the state’s resources against climate change.” The Eugene residents wanted the state to collect more information on greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the impact of climate change.

Just like in the Oregon case, in which a local judge dismissed Chernaik and Juliana’s lawsuit, a state court judge in Anchorage tossed Kanuk’s case out, though the teenager is appealing to the State Supreme Court.

Kanuk’s appeal will most likely be denied, with the court whipping up some version of this rationale: The Courts don’t make the laws, the legislature makes the laws. And given that the legislature in Alaska is ruled by Governor Sean Parnell, a former big oil executive who just eliminated Alaska's Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, it doesn’t appear—right now, anyway—that the lawmakers in Alaska have any interest in stepping in to do something about mitigating the single gravest threat facing Kanuk’s generation.