Driven by youth, AFN declares climate change state of emergency

Nanieezh Peter and Quannah Potts speak to the AFN convention on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

With resolve in their voices, 15-year-old Nanieezh Peter and 17-year-old Quannah Potts stood in front of the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention on Saturday and asked that the group do something about climate change.

“We are not here to fight with our own people. This is a serious issue. I’m worried about our future generations. I’m crying up here. We should not have to cry to you guys,” Potts said. “We should not have to come to you worrying about our future generations, our future children and grandchildren. We should be able to live our ways of life, to hunt. We are not environmentalists. We are indigenous youth.”

The debate over the resolution to declare a climate emergency and reinstate an AFN climate change task force took nearly an hour and highlighted divisions over the development of non-renewable resources that some communities have come to rely upon.

Crawford Patkotak, the chair of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., argued for inclusion of a line that would specifically protect resource development on Alaska Native lands.

“We can’t be moving on emotion only,” he said. “We’ve gotta have the right balance and make sure we don’t hamstring ourselves. That right balance to not only enhance, protect and live our culture, but preventing unnecessary regulation that would tie our hands up when it comes to developing our own resource.”

Patkotak had many supporters from his region. Some doubted the science of climate change, questioning the industry’s role in causing it while others suggested the changes are simply cyclical. Others argued resource development has allowed Alaska Native communities to survive and continue their traditional ways of life.

Potts and Peter both opposed the motion, arguing that oil and coal development are both key drivers of climate change. They said it’s up to them to protect their way of life.

“Our people are very aware of climate change. We see it in the sky, we notice it in the sun, we notice in the earth and in our animals,” Potts said. “Our animals can’t tell us that they’re sick or that they’re hurting and it’s up to us to protect them and ensure that they survive along with our future generations. … Drilling and tearing apart our earth is not who we are. We protect our earth, we protect our ways of life.”

With the debate getting tense, moderators pointed out that the resolution simply sought to set up a task force on climate change. And it’s there that some of the differences between the industry-reliant communities and others could hash things out.

Esau Sinnok, a young person from Shishmaref who’s the lead plaintiff in a climate change case before the Alaska Supreme Court is, spoke in support of their efforts and against the changes proposed by Patkotak. He warned against dismissing Potts and Peter because of their age.

“Nanieezh Peter and Quannah Potts, they’re local people. They’re local, indigenous young women who are doing work. That grassroots organizing is the real way to get work done,” he said. “These people don’t need no president or CEO title to be able to get work done and that’s what this resolution is doing. As young people, we are the future leaders of not our governmental level but school boards and assemblies so it’s very important to acknowledge that young people are the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow.”

In a convention that focuses in many ways on building up and empowering future leaders, Sinnok’s message reverberated with the convention and was taken a step further by Tanana Chiefs Conference Chief Victor Joseph.

“Let’s honor these young people that stood up. They need it and they did it eloquently and in a good way,” he said. “Let’s stop the debate and give them what they want.”

His comments received standing ovation from the convention.

The resolution was adopted without Patkotak’s proposed amendment.

Why it matters

Young people are making headlines when it comes to fighting for attention and action on climate change, and Alaska is on the forefront of that issue as it’s already feeling the changes of climate change.

Potts and Peter highlighted changes to animal populations, thinning winter sea ice and shrinking coastlines as impacts that are already being felt by Alaska Native communities.

The case that Sinnok and other Alaska youth have brought against the state argues that the state isn’t doing enough to combat climate change and seeks to declare a livable environment as a fundamental right.

In many ways, these are first steps but they’re setting the stage for future action.

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