Most people may assume that the right to clean air and water is a given in the United States. We are a first world nation and global leader. However, the amount of environmental contamination and environmental disasters in this country demonstrate that a healthy environment is not guaranteed.
Right to a Healthy Environment in State Constitutions
Some states have taken the initiative to protect their residents’ rights to a healthy environment by including the right in their constitutions by amendment.
New York’s “healthful environment”
In November 2021, New York joined Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Montana by adding an affirmative right to a “healthful environment” to its state constitution. New York State voters approved the following language: “Each person shall have the right to clean air and water, and to a healthful environment.”
Massachusetts’ Constitutional Protections
Massachusetts’ constitutional amendment reads: “The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose.”
Montana’s protection for present and future generations
Montana has one of the strongest environmental constitutional protections: “(1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.
(2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty.
(3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.”
Pennsylvania’s clean air and pure water amendment
Pennsylvania passed the following amendment to protect the environment: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
Why constitutional amendments are necessary
By using a constitutional amendment, these states ensure that the right to a healthy environment is truly protected. State constitutions trump state laws. Thus, if politicians decide they want to pass less protective laws, the constitution would still protect residents.
Other state legislatures have proposed “green amendments” to state constitutions, but their adoption hasn’t occurred for one reason or another.
There are many state and federal laws whose aim is to protect the environment. However, these laws still leave the environment and citizens vulnerable and unprotected in many cases. Constitutional amendments are not just symbolic. These are actionable rights. These amendments can be used by the community when the government fails to protect these rights.