By Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children's Trus
Three days ago I was heading to the northernmost town in the United States in order to help a dedicated public interest attorney prepare for and argue one of the most important cases the Supreme Court of Alaska has ever heard, Nelson Kanuk v. State of Alaska. The case is about whether the Alaska Constitution requires the State to protect the atmosphere as a public trust resource for present and future generations. It’s only the second time the Alaska Supreme Court has traveled to Barrow (originally called Ukpeagvik, meaning “place to hunt snowy owls”) for oral argument. The last time was over 30 years ago to hear a case on offshore oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea. Tonight, as I sit here at the Polar Bear Apartment we rented at 4476 North Star Road (just 4476 to locals), I am in awe of the richness of this place and the overwhelming experience of being at the top of the world. I could not have anticipated all that I would witness and learn these past two short days.
When you walk out of the Alaska Airlines hangar in Barrow in October, it’s cold, the ground is white, the sky is usually grey, and it’s flat. Nearly all of the buildings are on pilings or stilts because of the soggy permafrost when it warms, the roads are unpaved gravel under the ice and snow, and the only other things breaking up the vast landscape are the Arctic Ocean and the occasional snow covered lagoon. To my eyes, it was stark. But I was looking forward to spending a few days with my cousin, who happens to be teaching English at Ilisagvik College here for the past two years.
I got the twilight tour from my cousin-in-law right when I arrived. It didn’t take long to circumnavigate this town of fewer than 5000 people and drive a short distance north to the Inupiat hunting huts, where the bloodstains of recently harvested bowhead whales marred the white landscape. Gulls flocked to find remnants of whale blubber, called maktak, and 50 yards away, the ocean gently rocked against the course black sandy shoreline, which is not much of a beach anymore with the rising waters from warming oceans and melting ice. What elders say used to stretch many yards out, consistent with old photos, is now a narrow strip of black sand.
I spent the night with my cousins and their newly adopted and retired sled-dog Sisuaq (which means beluga), in the home it took them seven months to secure because of the dearth of housing in Barrow. Sisuaq’s thick white coat smells of the whale blubber and meat she has grown up eating. And though she has spent her life outside finding shelter only inside wooden kennels over snow like the other dogs (qimmiq), in a matter of weeks she has decided the warm indoor life of humans is perfectly acceptable. She’ll still spend her days outdoors to grow her warm winter coat, but her story is a perfect allegory to our species as well. We so quickly become accustomed to comforts, which we don’t necessarily need. But I was glad that the old girl, who has a lot of life in her yet, was sleeping inside last night and not on the cold snow. I too was projecting my views of comfort on her. I’m anthropomorphizing, yes, but she was cozy. As was I, in these overheated buildings. It may be 20 degrees or 20 below outside, but it’s a toasty 75 degrees on the inside, so be sure to pack your t-shirts when traveling to Barrow.
After awaking to a dark morning and snow flurries, I picked up my dear friend, and plaintiff in the Alaska Atmospheric Trust (ATL) case, Nelson Kanuk, from the airport. We toured the Ilisagvik College, ate burgers in the cafeteria, and presented the TRUST Campaign to a group of staff, faculty, and students of the college. We showed the ever-inspiring Stories of TRUST: Calling for Climate Recovery films of Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska and Nelson shared his sad news that his family home has indeed been lost due to the permafrost melt, erosion, and flooding that prevented them from staying where they lived in the village of Kipnuk. Katherine Dolma, co-plaintiff with Nelson, joined us to share her story about the melting glaciers, pine-beetle killed trees, and erosion happening near her home in Homer. She inspired the crowd with her story of starting the first recycling program in Homer. She is one of a handful of youth to win a presidential award for her service work, just as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez did earlier this year. The Barrow residents asked her to start a recycling program here, where everything now goes to the dump. Glass, paper, cardboard, aluminum, tin, plastic, Styrofoam . . . it all goes to the dump, the new one, because the old one has been filled and closed. Large barges come to town regularly to bring cars, building materials, equipment, goods of all kinds, and they leave empty. The recyclables do not get taken to recycling facilities because it would cost the Borough money to recycle their waste. When no one pays, the earth pays. Wildlife pays. Water pays. Air pays. The future will pay. It’s being left for another day.
I love telling people about the Public Trust Doctrine, its ancient origins from that Roman Emperor named Justinian, and its very practical and logical role in our system of law. The Public Trust Doctrine transcends complex laws that have become the norm. People get it. They like it. Of course we would protect essential natural resources that we need for our survival. Of course the government can’t allow anyone to irreparably harm those resources, least of all itself. Of course we would pass our natural heritage down to future generations. Of course . . . it’s not being done.
After sharing our story of ATL, our new friends, Matt and Shannon, took us on a tour that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. They showed us first-hand just how much our government studies the human-caused global climate crisis. The tour crystallized for me how much we have studied this crisis over the last 30 years and how little government has done to protect us from it. Knowledge and science are half the battle, but law and action are the other half.
Most people don’t know that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, a federal agency within the Department of Commerce) runs 6 greenhouse gas and ozone monitoring stations around the world. For more than half a century they have been measuring CO2 and other gas levels in our air, and for nearly a century they have been monitoring the ozone layer. One of these very important monitoring stations is the Barrow Observatory. The other CO2 observatories are in Hawaii, Samoa, and Antarctica. As fate would have it, we happened to know the right people to get a tour. Even though the federal government is “shutdown” right now, these employees are deemed “essential.” That should tell you something about how important their work is. There are only two technicians at the Barrow Observatory and they make sure this crazy array of equipment, computers, compressors, blown glass sample containers, and wires are all doing what they are supposed to be doing to track the changing composition of the atmosphere every second. For decades federal employees have been watching the numbers of CO2 go up. The graph is frightening. CO2 in Barrow has topped 400 ppm, which tops the current graph. While we were at the station, Nelson and Katherine got their own encapsulated sample of air with CO2 levels at that moment of 394.04 ppm. CO2 levels fluctuate throughout the day, and the year, with highs in the summer and lows in the winter, but nonetheless they are continually on the rise.
Seeing those instruments at work and hearing from the technicians who keep the place running, hammers home just how important the science is. If we didn’t have those measurements, we wouldn’t understand as clearly how humans are causing this problem of warming and why it’s occurring. The monitoring station here in Barrow, and the 3 others, give us a fighting chance at addressing this problem. I’ll keep my vial of air as a reminder of why we work so hard each day to win these cases on behalf of our nation’s children. I hope that one day when my grandchildren see that vial, they will see CO2 levels dropping below 394 ppm and they’ll be mindful of how close we came to irreparably harming their resources, and how some brave young people and some brave judges with the incredible dedication of scientists helped turn things around for us. Oddly, that little vial of air gives me hope.
There were polar bear paw prints outside of the station yesterday. Perhaps they came to town to join in the whale harvest. We never saw the bears, but we did witness the subsistence harvest of bowhead whales or agviq. Just north of the NOAA station, dozens of trucks were gathered in a circle around two boats and two mostly-butchered one-year-old agviq. Most of the blubber was cut into 6-inch by 12-inch sections and was being divided and piled onto truck beds to take back into town. The skulls and baleen were separated from the entrails, still perfectly intact, from the bony structure of the whale’s body, from the fins. New circles of red marked the snow. The smell of meat and ocean was strong and sometimes pungent, and young children and grown men worked quickly to hook chunks of maktak and whale meat into their trucks, as women watched. I have never seen so much blood. My own blood was pumping vigorously. I was simultaneously invigorated to see the Inupiat of Barrow harvesting their traditional sustenance for the winter, and sorrowful for the double deaths of two whales. Intellectually I respect the importance of this food for the Inupiat. And I understand the heritage and cultural meaning for a people who live in a vastly different world than their ancestors. And yet, it is not my subsistence culture or familial heritage. And I admit that I feel compassion for these whales. My heart and my head strive to find reason and compassion for both whale and human.
I wish I could do justice to this 3-hour window into the dichotomy of Barrow’s experience. One moment, I witness an ancient practice of a resilient people who have lived for generations in a harsh environment where their primary food source was from the ocean in the form of marine mammals, like whales, seals, and walruses along with occasional fish. The descendants of the original Inupiaq can now go to the AC, the local grocery store, and buy most food you could buy in the lower 48, for three times the price, but it’s there, transported by plane and barge. In contrast, a whale harvest does not exacerbate climate change. The weekly delivery of groceries from around the world does.
And while the people of Barrow share communally in the bounty of a successful whale hunt, the specialized monitoring equipment at the NOAA observatory uses modern technology to track the destruction of the atmospheric resource from the modern industrialization and the consequent carbon emissions. Hunting and butchering whales. Only a mile from one of the most important observatories of the atmospheric resource on earth. Barrow is a collision of incredible scientific data collection borne of the modern world and ancient human survival in harsh conditions. It is also ground zero for climate impacts with changing sea ice conditions, melting permafrost, later winters, and early melting sea ice in summer. In Point Lay, another village in the North Slope Borough, walruses (also a food source for many) are dangerously stranded on an island because of the absence of sea ice. Sinkholes in the melting tundra in Point Lay are threatening infrastructure.
Here, the people worry about their ability to continue their subsistence hunting because of the unstable ice. In fact, this spring, the Inupiat in Barrow had their latest seasonal whale harvest ever recorded. They had tried through the spring to hunt and were unsuccessful because of the early receding ice. Fearing they might not harvest at all, they finally took two older and larger whales in June. Rumor has it that they killed larger whales than usual, and later discovered they were 150 and 200 years old. I had no idea a whale could live so long. The long-lived genes of those two whales are now gone. And the Inupiat would have preferred to eat the less tough and fresh meat of a younger whale. But global warming and melting ice interfered.
Even though the bowhead whale population seems stable and growing right now, which allows for the legally permitted 20 strikes on bowheads as part of the subsistence hunt, the change in the whales’ food source as ocean acidification threatens the krill they feed on could change their fate in the coming decades. No one loves the bowhead whales more than the Inupiat. They would do anything to protect them. We heard from many in Barrow that they hope Nelson and Katherine and the other plaintiffs win this case. They see what is happening to their land and ice. And yet the North Slope Borough relies on money that comes from the oil and gas industry. They bring money and jobs to the North Slope. These are complicated questions implicating money, public services, standards of living, food, subsistence, ways of life, progress, and posterity. There are no simple answers.
But there are simple answers for the Supreme Court of Alaska to address. At the oral argument today, in a packed auditorium at Barrow High School, Justices Fabe, Winfree, Maassen, and Bolger heard Brad De Noble argue on behalf of youth that the atmosphere is a legally protected resource under the Alaska Constitution and that they must hear Nelson and Katherine’s case, while the State’s attorney argued that Nelson’s loss of his house was not an adequate harm to give him the right to go to court, and that the court cannot make any decisions implicating climate change because it is reserved for the legislature. Since when did climate change become only a political issue? Perhaps since big oil, big coal, and big gas decided they could buy politicians, deceive the American public for decades about climate change, all to increase the money in their pocketbooks, at the expense of the future of our kids. Ultimately the Court will decide whether the case can be heard and whether the atmosphere must be protected by the State. Brad, concluded his compelling argument to the Court by saying:
"The Alaska constitution guarantees these young appellants, in fact all citizens of Alaska, a decision from this court that preserves this great land and its resources, and secures and transmits to succeeding generations equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law."
The Justices were engaged and engaging in Barrow, and the case is now in their fateful hands to be decided in the coming months. The young people and community members of Barrow were educated about their constitutional rights, the importance of the judiciary, and they were encouraged to pursue careers in the legal system to broaden the diversity of lawyers and judges in Alaska. I hope more Inupiat do become judges because the perspective they would bring, given their heritage and relationship to the land and sea and ice, would serve us all well.
Everyone sees the impacts of climate change here in Barrow. It is accepted, common knowledge. Ironically, as we left the high school courtroom today, the icicles hanging from the school were melting, the sun was shining through the clouds and temperatures were above freezing. It felt warm. I don’t know how unusual that is for early October, but it was unnerving. And so we did what anyone might do after one of the most important oral arguments of your career and when the sun is shining in Barrow—we took the polar plunge! Nelson, Katherine, Brenda (Katherine’s mom), Brad, and I all jumped in the Arctic Ocean. (Brad, our fearless leader, dove in head-first! You have to be bold to do this work and that dive spoke volumes). “Cold” does not begin to describe the water, but it felt necessary. Sometimes you have to do something a little crazy to get perspective and remind yourself that since we live on this planet for such a short time, we might as well live it well, and leave it well for the next generation.
I flew to Barrow. I expended carbon. I contributed to climate change. Was it worth the carbon footprint? I don’t know how to begin to answer that question. I don’t know from where the most important decision from a court will come. I don’t know if this blog post will touch you and make a difference, but I hope it does. I hope the Alaska Supreme Court will break through the punting that has preceded this case and make an historic decision on behalf of these young people. I hope by Brad, Nelson, Katherine, Brenda, and I being in Barrow, seeing the NOAA observatory, the whale harvest, swimming in the Arctic, sitting in a high school before four justices of the Alaska Supreme Court, sharing our collective stories, and work on the TRUST Campaign, we helped change the course of history for the better. I know Nelson and Katherine will make this world a healthier place to live, and they now have more tools in their belts to do so. And I know that we came together with others in this community and lived richly for a few days, connecting with one another, talking, exploring how we can carry this work forward, and educating hundreds of youth on the North Slope of Alaska in the process.
I hope it was worth the carbon. For the sake of my kids and yours, and especially theirs. May it be worth it’s price.
It’s midnight. The northern lights are dancing above the clouds tonight. I know they are there, though I can’t see them because it’s been lightly snowing. Whales are swimming in the waters nearby. Polar bears will soon travel to the smell of whale bones looking for leftovers. Tomorrow, we’ll awake and hope that this special place will hold onto its heritage, its ice, and its wildlife for centuries to come. I hope the Inupiat have the opportunity to continue their subsistence way of life for posterity.
And as for Brad, our fearless attorney, he’s off to search for polar bears in the dark of the morning with wildlife photographer John Tidwell. I hope he finds a glimpse of one at dawn. And I hope when his 14-month old twins are his age, they too will be able to go in search of polar bears in their home state of Alaska, and that they will find them healthy and abundant.
Katherine and Nelson are back to their senior year in high school and freshman year in college, respectively, and undoubtedly they will continue having an enormous impact as they share their stories and pursue their legal remedy of government action on climate change. They are the future of our nation, and because of them and their light, I feel hopeful.
Thanks to all of the people of Barrow who made our brief stay there memorable and impactful—those we met and those who touched our lives without knowing us. And to Brad, Nelson, and Katherine, thank you.
Update Note: Brad did see polar bears!
Check out TRUST Alaska, the short documentary featuring Nelson Kanuk and his climate change story.
And to provide your support to Nelson, Katherine and the other youth plaintiffs, please consider making a donation to Our Children’s Trust. No amount is too small and it will help them continue their advocacy, and help us continue to support their legal effort. We run lean and strong and your contribution will go a long way!