It’s Time to Make (Green) Amends

In February, 2023, sixteen youth will present their case in the first youth climate trial to go to hearing in the United States. Their claim? That Montana’s energy policy, which buys heavily into fossil fuels, threatens the clean and healthful environment to which they have a constitutional right.

Youth protest at the Toronto Stock Exchange. The Keystone XL pipeline, drawing on tar sands from Alberta, was slated to run through Montana. “Toronto Stock Exchange” by 350.org is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse

Montana’s youth are in a near-unique position in their ability to bring this case to trial. Just three U.S. states have written “Green Amendments” into their state constitution’s Bill of Rights, establishing the right of the people to a “clean and healthful” environment among the most fundamental rights guaranteed by the state. New York, as of late 2021, is now one of them.

 

What is a Green Amendment?

Green Amendments are constitutional provisions establishing the protected environmental rights of the people. It’s an idea that comes from the foundational principles of the Environmental Justice movement

When adopted into a Bill of Rights at the state or federal level, the right to clean air, water, and a healthful environment is recognized alongside the right to free speech, a fair trial, and other values that we hold at the core of this country’s identity. 

In other words, a Green Amendment is a powerful statement.

But what does it mean in practice?

 

Constituents stood outside then-State Representative Brian Ellis’s office in 2012, protesting Ellis’s support of Act 13, which undermined local agency to determine where fracking could occur. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling the following year retained that right for localities. “IMG_0339” by shadbushcollective is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse

Through the Ages

The first environmental rights amendments in the United States, in Pennsylvania and Montana, were spurred by the environmental movement of the early 1970s, but experienced a period of stagnation until recently. 

Then, in 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the right of localities to prohibit methane gas fracking through their zoning codes in a revival of its environmental rights amendment, boosting momentum in the movement to adopt Green Amendments across the nation.

For New York, the impact is yet to be seen. A lawsuit seeking closure of a Monroe County landfill has adopted arguments that continuing to operate the landfill violates the Green Amendment rights of nearby residents. The group bringing the suit, Fresh Air for the East Side, argues that the landfill emits noxious gases, including climate-warming methane.

Will the effects go beyond the closure of individual sites to more systemic change?

 

From Sites to Systems

Recent court interpretations in both Pennsylvania and Montana suggest it’s possible that New Yorkers’ new guaranteed right could mean a whole lot for improving environmental conditions in the state for current and future residents.

Particularly on the climate front, New York’s Green Amendment may create opportunities to challenge the development of fossil fuel infrastructure, if Pennsylvania and Montana are any indicators. And this guarantee can operate in tandem with the state’s 2019 legislation committing New York to an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to reach net zero by 2050. 

Clean air, water, and an environment promoting health are foundational to our wellbeing and existence as humans. To guarantee these rights constitutionally is a step in the right direction for those who are living under present and future environmental threats from point-source pollution and human-caused climate change. 

As the current youth-led case in Montana illustrates, an environmental rights amendment can open doors to protect all people from environmental degradation that is inextricably tied to human health and wellbeing.

 

What’s Next?

I’ll be tuning in next February to see how we can bring the courage of these Montana youth home to New York, using Green Amendments as a tool to supplement New York’s climate legislation in removing fossil fuel infrastructure and equipment from the state and guaranteeing a safe and healthy environment for all, present and future. 

In the meantime, forty-seven states have not yet adopted environmental rights into their Bills of Rights. Green Amendments for the Generations, a nonprofit founded by Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum, is seeking to change that by pushing for constitutionally guaranteed environmental rights in every state. See your state’s status here and learn how to help advance Green Amendments nationally.

About francesduncan

Frances Duncan '23 is a first year graduate student at Bard CEP. She believes in the promise of local- and state-level climate policy to increase climate ambition and advance towards a stable future.