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Guest Opinion: People & Nature Need Environmental Rights Empowerment

#Guest Opinion: People & Nature Need Environmental Rights Empowerment

The recent Held v. Montana decision recognized the the right of young people to a safe climate and used this human entitlement as a foundation for pursuing essential environmental protections. In striking down harmful government action threatening the environmental rights of the Held v. Montana plaintiffs, the case demonstrated the legal power that comes when we recognize environmental protection as an essential right belonging to all people.  While the rights of people to a healthy environment is being increasingly protected in law, the rights of nature to similarly strong protection is still working towards this essential level of progress.  More is needed on both fronts.

Across the United States, the rights of people to a clean, safe and healthy environment, as well as the rights of nature to thrive, are being sacrificed through a system of laws and governance that views them as bargaining chips to be used to secure political power or contributions.  In response, people are working nationwide to secure pathways that can shift this power dynamic so that when unscrupulous, uncaring or uninformed government action sacrifices communities and nature to dangerous levels of environmental pollution, desecration, destruction and toxic contamination, legal action can be taken to thwart the harm.

Two different but synergistic pathways are rising to the top for many communities – one that secures an enforceable constitutional right of people to a clean, safe and healthy environment, including thriving ecosystems; and one that is focused on giving nature itself legal rights within our US judicial system.  While these are distinctly different concepts in terms of substance, strategy and impact; they compliment each other well and can provide a synergistic path forward that helps elevate the rights of all communities – human and nonhuman – who share this earth.

Green Amendments Reshape State Rules

The national Green Amendment movement is focused on securing a constitutional right of the people to clean and healthy water, air, soils, ecosystems, environment and a safe climate.  While, the Rights of Nature movement is focused on empowering nature itself to enforce its own right to exist and thrive.

Each of these empowerment movements serve their own role in the collective efforts of people to move towards a clean, safe and healthy world. Both movements are changing the way people think about their relationship to the natural world.  Both seek to dramatically raise the expectations people have of their elected government for ensuring priority and essential protection for the natural world with whom we share this earth and which is essential for healthy human lives.

But these movements seek action through a different lens of legal accountability and  enforceability.  While Green Amendments focus on securing enforceable constitutional rights of PEOPLE to a clean, safe and healthy environment, Rights of Nature focuses on securing legal rights for NATURE to enter a courtroom and secure their own accountability when environmental protection laws are violated.

The national Green Amendment movement is inspiring a new way of thinking and talking about environmental protection and is providing the transformational legal change needed to fully and enforceably address the wealth of environmental harms devastating people’s lives, particularly those of communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities.

Green Amendments are environmental rights amendments placed in the Bill of Rights section of our state constitutions which, when infringed upon, can be enforced by every day people.  When established in law, Green Amendments provide the legal strength necessary to protect the environmental rights and expectations of all generations. They also provide a pathway for ending environmental racism; provide a powerful tool for indigenous communities to protect their sacred lands and natural beliefs; and address the range of environmental issues in need of protection including protection of water, air, soils, species, ecosystems and climate.

Through their constitutional Bill of Rights placement, and carefully crafted language, Green Amendments create a higher legal standard of enforceable environmental and natural resources protection.

By focusing on the rights of people to the essentials of a healthy environment – water, air, soil, climate, ecosystems, native flora and fauna – and providing a constitutional pathway that empowers people to seek legal redress and accountability when the environment is allowed to become damaged and contaminated in ways that harm human health, safety and lives, constitutional Green Amendments secure a heightened obligation to protect all of nature in order to equitably protect all people and communities.

While transforming our legal system to one that empowers people with the ultimate authority to seek accountability for government action that degrades our environment and devastates lives, Green Amendments also create a mind-shift, one where a healthy environment is an entitlement of the people not to be transgressed by bad government action.  The result is a greater emotional and intellectual entitlement, and a higher expectation of environmental protection that strengthens the fortitude of people to demand better of their government – in courtrooms, statehouses, public hearings and private meetings – when it comes to their water, air, climate and environment.

Give Nature Standing In Court

By comparison, the Rights of Nature movement seeks to ensure that nature itself has a right to go to court to secure enforcement of existing environmental protection laws when they are violated, causing harm to the natural resources the laws require to be protected.  This recognition that nature itself should have a legal right to thrive that is independent of people, allows for legal accountability in a court of law where nature itself, through legal counsel, can be its own champion.

Whether secured through legislation or at the municipal level, the Rights of Nature movement will give nature itself standing in the courts, removing the need to show that a person has been harmed. Not only does this legal shift alter accountability under our system of law, but it transforms the way people think about, and interact with, nature itself – creating a higher level of respect and regard that is so often missing from public thinking, decision making and discourse.

While Rights of Nature provisions strengthen the ability to enforce current laws on the books and to challenge violations of those laws, Green Amendments operate differently. They strengthen environmental protection overall, can fill gaps in environmental protection laws, increase the obligations for scientific review and equitable environmental protection for all people regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, and make clear the obligation of the government to proactively protect natural resources in the near term but also generationally.

While Green Amendments will heighten the legal obligation of government officials to protect all of nature for the benefit of all people, allowing nature to join the army of enforcers for  those laws when their now recognized entitlement to health and safety has been legally breached, will create a more diverse and powerful force of expectation and enforcement that will better protect both nature and people. The Green Amendment movement and Rights of Nature are powerful compliments that together will raise the bar of expectation, and actual protection, for the natural world and human communities.

About the Author

Maya K. van Rossum is founder of the national Green Amendments For the Generations movement and organization and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

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