Protect the environment

In the United States, we acknowledge and protect free speech, property, and gun rights. We don’t formally recognize a right to drink clean water, to breathe clean air, and to have the healthy environments essential to supporting and sustaining healthy lives. Instead, these fundamental human rights are entrusted to a political system with competing demands — where money and special interests have primacy over justice and basic human needs and where partisan gamesmanship is often more important than facts, science, and human life. As written, our environmental laws accept pollution and degradation as a foregone conclusion — a right of industry, something to be managed through reviews and permitting rather than prevented through good government action.

Under this system, communities are suffering from pollution and environmental degradation. We are facing a growing climate crisis that is causing floods, drought, wildfires, and an uncertain future.

That’s why we must add a Green Amendment to the US Constitution. Three states — Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York — already have amendments in their constitutions that can serve as models because they put environmental rights on par with other civil, human, and political rights. With that change to the US Constitution, government officials would be required to prioritize environmental rights and protection in all decision-making. It would be a powerful tool for securing true environmental justice by mandating the equitable treatment of all communities regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomics; and for guaranteeing that the environmental rights of one community cannot be sacrificed to achieve the environmental, economic, or political goals of others. When there was a legal gap in environmental protection or implementation that resulted in dangerous environmental harm, the constitutional right could be relied upon to provide protection.

A Green Amendment would raise people’s expectations for their government and empower them to advocate more firmly and confidently for environmental protection. When government officials fail to fulfill their constitutional duty, the Green Amendment would provide a pathway to defend environmental rights in court that is broader than what is available under existing laws like the Clean Air Act.

There are no rights in more urgent need of constitutional recognition than these.

Maya K. van Rossum is the author of “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment” and the head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.