Green Amendment Day — an Annual Call to Honor the Right to a Clean, Healthy Environment
July 13, 2023
This blog was written by NCEL Communication Intern Annabelle Pukas. Annabelle is a rising senior at Georgetown University with a major in government and double minors in biology and environmental studies.
Everyone deserves access to clean air and fresh water, and Green Amendments enshrine the right to a healthy and protected environment in state constitutions. As environmental threats like climate change and biodiversity loss have continued to worsen, Green Amendments have gained traction around the nation. In celebration of Green Amendment Day, this blog dives into the past, present, and future of these constitutional amendments.
Past: The History of Green Amendments
In 2020, only two states — Montana and Pennsylvania — had Green Amendments outlined in their state constitutions.
- Montana’s Green Amendment, enshrined in 1972, guarantees that “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations” and tasks the legislature with ensuring the administration and enforcement of this duty. The state’s Green Amendment also requires the legislature to “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 Green Amendment, established in 1971, recognizes that “the people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of 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 such, the Commonwealth is responsible for conserving and maintaining such natural resources for “the benefit of all the people.”
In 2021, the number of states with Green Amendments increased to three when New York adopted a constitutional reform to protect environmental liberties.
- The New York reform reads, in its entirety, “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
Pennsylvania, Montana, and New York have served as role models for several other states considering Green Amendments. In 2022, at least nine states — including Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Iowa, Washington, and West Virginia — considered legislation to advance or codify constitutional Green Amendments. The states’ proposals varied but clearly drew from the previously established legislation; all the amendments proposed in 2022 broadly:
- Recognize that each person has a right to a clean, healthy, and preserved environment.
- Outline that state natural resources belong to the collective of current and future communities.
- Appoint the state as trustee of the natural resources.
Present: The State of Green Amendment Legislation in 2023
As of June 2023, at least 12 states had introduced Green Amendment legislation. The state legislatures actively working on Green Amendment proposals in 2023 include: Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. All of the proposed amendments have a similar ethos to earlier legislation and generally recognize that each person has a right to a clean, healthy, and preserved environment, outline that state natural resources belong to the collective of current and future inhabitants, and appoint the state as trustee of the natural resources.
Future: Where the Green Amendment Movement Might Head in Upcoming Years
The need for environmental protections will only grow in the future, meaning state interest in Green Amendments will likely continue to increase. With each new legislative session, legislators and activists gain significant awareness of and knowledge regarding state-level Green Amendments.
For instance – beyond an unprecedented number of states introducing Green Amendment legislation – interest in the reforms has been demonstrated by both red and blue states. The proliferation of Green Amendment legislation is encouraging and suggests that recognizing environmental protections can cross partisan divides.
An uptick in court cases might also characterize the future of the Green Amendment movement. In Montana, a groundbreaking youth climate trial recently concluded, with a final decision expected in the upcoming months. The trial, Held v. Montana, consisted of 16 Montanan youth suing the state for their promotion of and support for fossil fuel extraction and burning. The novel case will likely serve as a model for future Green Amendment judicial action in other states.
If you would like to learn more about Green Amendments check out NCEL’s resources on Green Amendments or explore Green Amendments for the Generations’ Check List, Model Language & Guide. You can also hear directly from legislators helping to advance Green Amendments in their states.
If you are a state legislator looking to learn more about getting involved with Green Amendment work, please contact Kate Burgess, NCEL’s Conservation Program Manager.