Do You Have a Right to Clean and Healthy Air, Water, Soil, and Environment? To a Stable Climate?
Not in Our State Constitution – But We Can Change That!
Kimberly Stoner, Ph.D.
Of course, you have a moral right to these necessities for survival. But no, you do not have any environmental rights in the Connecticut state constitution or the U.S. constitution. Your right to a clean environment is not protected on the same level as your right to free speech or to freedom of religion. Or the right to bear arms.
Does it matter? There are laws for environmental protection at the state level: the CT Environmental Policy Act, the CT Environmental Protection Act; and at the Federal level: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and others.
These laws have all been in place since the early 1970s, the era of Earth Day. They were huge advances in their time. But their power has eroded, sometimes because of weak enforcement or regulations on the part of the executive branch, sometimes because of court decisions, such as the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision weakening the protection of wetlands under the Clean Water Act.
And laws are easy for legislators to change, but a constitutional amendment is hard to change and can overturn bad laws. That’s what happened in Held v. Montana, the case brought by young people against the state of Montana, after the state legislature passed a law that would have required the government not to consider effects on climate change when deciding about permits for fossil fuel facilities. The young people won a court decision overturning that bad law based on the environmental rights in the Montana constitution.
I am leading a campaign, supported by the Connecticut Chapter of the Sierra Club, to pass the CT Environmental Rights Amendment. Passing an amendment to the constitution is not easy. In order to amend the state constitution, we have to win in both houses of the CT General Assembly. If we win by 75% of the vote in both houses, then the amendment goes to a referendum of the people. If we win by less than 75%, then it has to pass the legislature again before going to referendum.
Remember that all those environmental laws from the 1970s were passed because the people rose up and demanded change on Earth Day. To get a constitutional amendment protecting the necessities of life and protecting our environment for future generations, we will need to rise up again.
Inspired by the victory of the young people in Montana? You can learn more about how this links to Green Amendments, like the CT Environmental Rights Amendment, in a national webinar here.
Kimberly Stoner, Ph.D., is Director of Advocacy at CT NOFA.