Carl Smith is part of a landmark complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

By Rachel DeSantis and KC Baker
April 14, 2021 04:59 PM
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carl smith
Carl Smith
| Credit: Courtesy Kimberly Jackson

Just like his parents and grandparents before him, Alaska teenager Carl Smith lives off the land, whether it's catching salmon for dinner or collecting wood to keep warm in winter.

But the climate emergency is threatening the way Carl and his Yupik Eskimo family members have lived for generations, prompting the teenager to step into a role he never imagined he'd have: that of climate activist.

"I wanted to get the word out," Carl, 18, tells PEOPLE for the Earth Day special. "Nobody really knows what's happening out here in rural Alaska."

For Carl, home is Akiak, a small village of about 400 people who rely on the Kuskokwim River for salmon in the summer, and geese and moose hunting in the spring and fall to keep their stomachs fed.

But as global temperatures rise, Alaska's winters are getting shorter, and the permafrost near Akiak is thawing, causing large waves in the river that have been eroding the shoreline as they crash; Carl estimates they've so far lost about 100 feet of land.

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"Last summer it reached 90 degrees, and there were dead salmon floating down the river," he says. "The ice used to be so thick you could drive your snowmobile across the river to the other side to go geese hunting. But now, it's starting to be too warm… I want it back the way it was."

Carl's concerns received national attention in 2019, when he and 15 other teenagers filed a landmark complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, charging five countries with violating their rights as children by not doing enough to end the climate crisis and the threat it poses to their futures.

The complaint was spearheaded by attorney Michael Hausfeld, who says Carl stood out because climate change is directly affecting his life.

"He's experiencing it firsthand. He is watching his life slowly diminish and disappear," Hausfeld tells PEOPLE. "Carl could become an icon for the concept of intergenerational equity, which is an obligation of states to secure a living planet for the next generations."

Carl, who has his high school diploma and has plans to enroll in a training program to be a mechanic or plumber, traveled to New York for the Human Rights Day Summit, where he met fellow activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor, who are also part of the complaint.

"When I heard the stories from people around the world, I felt like I was with them," he says. "We're experiencing different things, but in a way, it's all the same. I just felt connected to them in some way."

Hausfeld says the group is hoping for a decision regarding the complaint in May — but no matter what comes of it, Carl remains dedicated to creating a better tomorrow.

"I'm going to keep telling everyone that climate's coming, climate's changing, and it's happening everywhere in the world," he says. "If we don't do anything about it, we won't have a home to live in. I just hope everyone listens."