Nationwide, communities are coming together to demand constitutional recognition of their rights to a clean, safe, and healthy environment, including a stable climate, in the form of state Green Amendments.
Green Amendments include explicit protection for environmental rights, including the rights to pure water, clean air, a safe climate, and healthy environments. They empower environmental justice protections through constitutional mandates that a state’s natural resources and the human right of all its people to clean and healthy environments be protected equitably for all communities regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, geography, or generation.
By placing these constitutional entitlements, using carefully crafted language, in a state constitution’s Bill of Rights (in some states, called its Declaration of Rights), Green Amendments assure that the environmental rights of the people are given highest constitutional standing, recognition, protection, and enforceability. At the forefront of this national Green Amendment movement are states like New Mexico and Nevada, which provide lessons for activists who want to secure constitutional environmental rights protection in their state.
Environmental justice advocates, Indigenous communities, environmental leaders, and everyday community members are speaking in support of Green Amendments, including at state legislative hearings. They are communicating how pollution from industrial operations, mining, oil and gas extraction, toxic contaminated sites, and the climate crisis are causing their health, families, culture, and communities to suffer.
Knee Jerk Industry Opposition Was No Surprise – But Big Green Opposition Was
When a Green Amendment was proposed in New Mexico, it was no surprise that the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association opposed it. Or that the Koch Brothers-backed political action committee (PAC), Americans for Prosperity, also testified in opposition.
But it was disturbing to watch this year as so-called “clean energy” companies marshaled opposition under the umbrella name Interwest Energy Alliance (IEA) and put forth a rash of fear-mongering hypotheticals and lies about the impact of a Green Amendment. They suggested that environmental rights would undermine efforts to advance clean energy. In one breath, the industry testifiers asserted they cared about the environment, while in the next they expressed their uninformed stance opposing state Green Amendments and the environmental rights and environmental justice protections they provide. IEA has gone so far as to run social media ads in opposition to Green Amendments.
Pointing to the hypocrisy of the industry’s anti-environmental lobbying, New Mexico Representative Joanne Ferrary said it is “appalling that so-called clean energy companies would be so insecure in their capabilities to provide environmentally safe and protective energy generation and transmission, that they would vehemently stand in the way of the people of Nevada and New Mexico being able to secure environmental protections as a Constitutional right for the generations!”
But the real shocker was that some notable Big Green organizations, including Sierra Club National and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are members of IEA and have failed to repudiate the anti-environmental rights messaging. It seems incomprehensible that while in multiple states, Sierra Club chapters are working as part of the Green Amendments movement prioritizing efforts to secure passage of state Green Amendments, Sierra Club National is part of this IEA industry coalition actively working to oppose them. This startling contradiction in goals undermines the work and values of Sierra Club chapters and members.
Sadly, it’s not the first time. This situation is eerily reminiscent of the fracking debate, when state Sierra Club chapters were fighting hard to protect their communities from the ravages of fracking for fossil fuels from shale, while Sierra Club National advocated for the fracking industry.
The Truth? Green Amendments Strengthen Good Clean Energy Efforts
Green Amendments provide powerful tools for supporting clean and renewable energy projects. In the three states that currently have Green Amendments – Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York – we are not seeing the environmental rights language being used to challenge good, clean energy projects. The IEA suggesting otherwise is simply fabrication.
The fact is that Green Amendments are focused on protecting healthy environments including water, air, and ecosystems. Proposed language often specifically includes the right of all people to a safe and stable climate, and that natural resources be protected for present and future generations. With such language, Green Amendments provide a positive legal foundation to support proactive government action uplifting clean energy progress in the near term. At the same time, constitutional environmental rights in the form of Green Amendments can help prevent the ongoing proliferation of dirty fossil fuel projects that are putting the environmental rights of present and future generations and environmental justice communities in grave peril.
Contrary to the fear-mongering of the IEA – Green Amendments don’t fuel baseless legal claims against clean energy. In fact, they can help fend off legal challenges to well-sited and planned renewable energy projects by recognizing that environmental degradation and climate change caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels inflicts human suffering, irreversible natural resources damage, economic harm, and generational harm. The recent case of Held v. Montana relies on the Montana Green Amendment entitlement to a clean and healthful environment as the basis for challenging government action that is supporting the proliferation of dirty fossil fuels by rejecting the right or obligation of Montana state government to consider climate change in key environmental deliberations. There is nothing in the experience of Pennsylvania, Montana, or New York to suggest that Green Amendment protections will do anything but support the strong and needed progress of clean and renewable energy projects that properly protect our environment.
By recognizing and protecting the rights of all people to clean water and air, healthy ecosystems and environment, and a stable climate, and complementing this recognition of individual rights with a trustee obligation to protect the state’s natural resources for present and future generations, Green Amendments incentivize government support of clean and renewable energy projects, and actually prioritize clean energy over the perpetuation and ongoing creation of new, dirty, and unnecessary fossil fuel energy projects.
Communities Need Green Amendments for Protection From Environmental Harm
Nationwide, we see countless examples of environmental racism and communities harmed by environmental pollution and degradation. These problems continue to permeate despite the enactment of landmark environmental legislation at the federal and state level such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. That is because, by and large, environmental laws focus on regulating pollution and environmental degradation, rather than preventing it.
Constitutional Green Amendments that raise environmental rights to the level of our most treasured entitlements (such as speech and religious freedom) provide the footing necessary to strengthen environmental governance.
Green Amendments ensure that environmental protection and environmental justice are always given high priority when government is taking action. In circumstances where existing laws and regulations are unable to ensure equitable protection of the rights of all people to clean and healthy water, air, soils, and environment, including a stable climate, constitutional environmental rights provided by Green Amendments give good government, communities, and environmentally-minded companies the legal strength they need to secure needed environmental protections.
If you want to learn more, see what is happening in your state, and join the Green Amendment movement, you can find all you need to know here.
What’s the Message for Environmentally & Socially Minded Businesses & Big Greens?
Communities need your partnership and proactive support. Green Amendments ensure environmental rights and justice are given full and fair protection. Businesses that advance essential protections, including for the climate, will benefit in a myriad of ways – ensuring best designed projects advance, securing the economic values a healthy environment provides, and doing your part to better protect our communities and world.
If you stand in opposition to the passage of a Green Amendment – either by outspoken opposition or through silent acquiescence to the false messaging and fear mongering lies of industry – then admit that you do not care about the people around you or future generations. IEA speakers claim that they care about protecting people’s right to access and benefit from clean and healthy water, air, ecosystems and environment, and that they are dedicated to addressing the climate crisis. I say, prove it! Stand with communities across our nation who are delivering the message that all people deserve constitutional recognition and protection of their human right to a clean, safe, and healthy environment and demanding constitutional protection for these rights. Stand with the Green Amendment movement.
About the Author
Maya K. van Rossum is the founder of the national Green Amendments For The Generations movement and organization, author of “The Green Amendment, The People’s Fight For a Clean, Safe & Healthy Environment,” the Delaware Riverkeeper, and 30-year leader of the regional Delaware Riverkeeper Network.