A Protected Right to a Healthful Environment Could Close the Gaps in Environmental Law

An article in Wired highlights the ways that current environmental law has failed to protect our environment. While the 1970’s wave of environmentalism produced good environmental legislation, this legislation failed to prevent the harm of allowing the fossil fuel industry free reign with our atmosphere. This article explains that environmental law is based on statutory rights, which “comes from a law passed by a state or federal government, and it can be overturned. Fundamental rights, by contrast, are those recognized by the Constitution and its amendments, international agreements like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or created by the due process of law. They are supposed to have more durability—and be guarded on citizens’ behalf by their legal system.”

In this article, Eleanor Cummins writes that “sometimes, a statutory approach to environmental issues has worked out OK. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act went into effect, Congress dramatically expanded the Clean Air Act, and President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. But without the fundamental right to a safe and healthy environment for all people enshrined in law—and fossil fuel companies funding politicians who look the other way—the federal government has struggled to keep up with the pace and scope of destruction in the past 50 years.”

Closing these gaps in our environmental law is a key reason why the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights is advocating to amend the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights section to protect each person’s right to a healthful and stable environment. In addition to protecting individual rights, the amendment would also designate the state as trustee of Maryland’s natural resources, including its air, water, land, wildlife and ecosystems on behalf of current and future generations. By establishing the role of the state as trustee, the amendment would create accountability in how Maryland’s natural resources are treated and affected. 

This accountability is both a carrot and a stick. On the plus side for state and local governments, it would uphold their right and strengthen their choices to take steps to protect their jurisdiction. This is how the amendment has worked in other states. On the plus side for individuals, it would hold state and local governments accountable when the people’s right to a healthful environment is violated. Individuals would still have to show harm but the amendment would be self-executing and allow an individual to be heard in a court of law if needed. 

The other key reason that MDEHR is advocating for an Environmental Human Rights Amendment has to do with changing expectations and behavior. Our state constitution is a contract between the people and the government that represents them. Including the fundamental right to a healthful and stable environment in the state constitution changes expectations of both citizens and government about what our collective priorities and mutual responsibilities are. 

2022 is a critical election year. Having the environmental rights amendment bill passed in the General Assembly is only the first step. The second step is getting it endorsed by you, the people. Once passed in the General Assembly,  the Environmental Human Rights Amendment will be placed on the ballot in the next general election so that  Maryland voters can  decide if prioritizing their right to a healthful environment is what they want. (The voters in New York State will be voting on just such an amendment this fall. We can be next with your help!) Join us in urging   the Maryland General Assembly to pass the amendment and put it on the ballot for the people to decide. Help us get the word out by following us on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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