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As His Home Melts Away, Teenager Sues Alaska

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Nelson Kanuk's house is built on a melting tundra. In a year or two, it could be gone.

So the 18-year-old Yup'ik Eskimo is suing the state of Alaska, arguing the state needs to take more action on climate change.

"The river that runs in front of my house is called the Kugkaktlik River, and it means 'the middle one' in the Yup'ik language," Kanuk says.

Kanuk is from a Yup'ik Eskimo village called Kipnuk. There are no roads in or out, so the river is the village's main highway. It's seven hours by motorboat to the nearest town. And now that the permafrost isn't so perma, something is happening to Kanuk's yard.

"It's disappearing," he says.

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.

"And then, as the summer progressed, we lost another five feet," Kanuk says. "Last fall, before I left there was about 40 feet or so. But when springtime comes there's definitely going to be a couple more feet that will be lost."

This is how his family has lived for generations, on a river delta in western Alaska, where the land provides what the local store cannot.

"We actually go out into the tundra, and we harvest salmonberries. We actually go out into the river, and we fish for salmon. And then we go out into the ocean in the springtime, and that's how we get the seal meat we need to survive in the winter time," he says.

Kanuk is one of six young Alaskans suing the state, with help from the organization Our Children's Trust. The Oregon-based nonprofit filed lawsuits on behalf of young plaintiffs against nine states and the federal government. The lawsuits ask the states to consider the atmosphere a public trust and to exercise their duty to protect it.

Part of the argument is that if the state of Alaska can manage other natural resources under its control — for example, by issuing hunting or fishing licenses — it should also be able to manage what's released into the atmosphere.

Seth Beausang, a lawyer for the state of Alaska, says he understands part of the argument. "But the state has almost no control over the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because that is determined by global emissions of greenhouse gases," he says.

Beausang says the issue of whether the state should regulate the atmosphere doesn't belong in the courts at all.

"We say it is more consistent with democratic principles for Alaska's elected representatives to be making policy in this area. We think the Legislature and the governor should be making policy, not a single superior court judge," Beausang says.

But Kanuk says the political process might be too slow, especially as he watches the river move closer to swallowing his home. "It's not a few years anymore. It could be within the next year," he says.

A state court judge in Anchorage dismissed Kanuk's case, and he's appealing that decision. He says he understands some people might view an eroding riverbank as a consequence of living in a remote wilderness. But he doesn't see it that way.

"It's not different from your home," Kanuk says. "Because that is where we live and it's part of who we are. It's the same with you."

What happens to Kanuk's home depends on river ice and permafrost. But what happens to his case is up to the Alaska Supreme Court. It's expected to hear an appeal sometime this year.

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