Youth and Elders lead the fight against climate change
Fairbanks— Delegates at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, on Sat. Oct. 19, voted to suspend the convention rules to allow consideration of a climate change resolution, among seven others, brought over from the First Alaskans Institute Youth and Elders conference held in the four days prior to Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.
After an hour of debate, the most contentious resolution passed. The resolution declares a climate change emergency and calls for the creation of a climate change leadership task force within AFN with the purpose of advancing Indigenous voices and advocating for strong climate policies that will ensure the survival of future generations.
Youth delegates Nanieezh Peter, 15, of Arctic Village, Quannah Chasing Horse Potts, 17, of Fairbanks, Zoe Okleasik, 16, and Alicyn Bahnke, 16, both from Nome, wrote the resolution. They said in a press statement that personal experiences with climate change in their communities inspired them to take action.
The resolution highlighted the severe impacts that climate change is having on Indigenous ways of life and the spiritual and cultural well-being of Alaska Native communities. “In recent years we have lost community members due to unpredictable and unsafe ice conditions, have seen the die off and disease of seals, salmon, migratory birds, shellfish, whales, polar bears, and recognize that these are also our relatives” the resolution states.
Peter and Potts brought the resolution to the floor of AFN, while Okleasik and Bahnke were unable to attend.
“I am an Indigenous youth. We are not here to fight with our own people. We shouldn’t have to worry about our future generations, about our children and grandchildren. This is important, this is our life, this is our future,” Potts said.
Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Chairman Crawford Patkotak spoke in opposition of the resolution as is and asked for an amendment to add a line recognizing the right to extract renewable and non-renewable resources on Native lands.
Patkotak said he worried that a resolution without such a statement might allow regulatory agencies and environmentalists a window of opportunity to impose more restrictions on land use and ultimately hamper the economy of his region.
Gail Schubert, Bering Straits Native Corporation president and CEO also urged caution. “It’s incredibly brave to come up and speak before the convention and I admire them for doing that. We are still a subsistence based economy, but we don’t want others to come in and use something that we say to impose more regulations on our ANCSA rights,” Schubert said.
“We are experiencing climate change but want to ensure we don’t do something as a body that allows outside groups to come in and dictate what we can and can’t do with both our natural and subsistence resources,” she added.
Peter and Potts argued again for their desire to pass the resolution unamended, arguing that the renewable and non-renewable resources Patkotak referred to include oil and coal that science is proving negatively impact climate.
Bering Straits delegate Esau Sinnok also argued for passage of the resolution as is. “Young people are the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow. We do have the voice and the opportunity and the brainpower and strength to do the actual work,” Sinnok said.
“We can’t just say ‘Oh we’ll do this next week,’ we can’t think like that because my one and only home is being eaten by the sea. It’s very important to talk about climate change now. It’s urgent right now.”
Sinnok, 21, from Shishmaref, is the lead plaintiff along with 15 other youth suing the state over its climate change policies. Attorneys for Sinnok and fellow plaintiffs argued an appeal in front of the Alaska Supreme Court on Oct. 9 for the right to present their case in state superior court. They maintain that current state policy of promoting fossil fuels is directly harming them and for the state to instead put in place actions that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and place a deadline for that reduction.
Victor Joseph, Tanana Chiefs Conference chairman also spoke passionately in favor of the resolution and called attention to the resolution’s focus of establishing a leadership taskforce.
“We should not be scared of that. We’re stewards of the land,” he said.
“Let’s honor these young people who stood up.” Joseph said prompting a standing ovation.
In the end all resolutions carried onto the AFN floor from the youth and elders passed without amendment.
Bahnke and Okleasik both expressed appreciation of the passage despite not being present at the time. “Having an AFN leadership task force for us not only supports us but should help us get our voices out there and help us change things around the state to lessen climate change,” Bahnke said in a statement.
“The main reason I’m concerned about climate change up here in the Norton Sound is that our sea ice is melting. In May of 2018 a lot of people here in Nome lost crab pots and they weren’t able to feed their families,” Okleasik stated.
“We need people to be concerned about climate change because we need to be able to use the resources our land provides for us and we can’t if the temperatures in the sea continue to rise.”
Youth-led climate strikes have taken place in Nome and across the state in recent months. The actions in Alaska are in coordination with an international youth climate movement that emphasizes the urgency of global action on climate change, according to organizers.