What is the Green Amendment and what would it do?
Democrats in the New Mexico House and Senate have introduced an amendment to our state’s Constitution that would give New Mexicans a new human right, the right to a healthy environment, in House Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Joint Resolution 2. It may suffer from death by committee during this short session, and if does not pass, it is likely to be reintroduced in the 2023 60-day session. If it passes, it goes to the voters and would be placed on the ballot in the next election. Then, if a majority of voters agree, the amendment would be added to our state’s constitution.
The Green Amendment would add language to our state’s Bill of Rights protecting the rights of New Mexicans “to a clean and healthy environment, including water, air, soil, flora, fauna, ecosystems and climate, and the preservation of the natural, cultural, scenic and healthful qualities of the environment.” It states our government must serve as trustee of the natural resources of the state, conserving, protecting and maintaining them for the benefit of all people including future generations.
Who doesn’t want the right to a clean and healthy environment? Most of us probably thought we already had it. But we don’t, and it is not that simple.
Historically, only Pennsylvania and Montana had strong constitutional environmental provisions, and they were rarely used. Most states do not enshrine environmental rights as human rights. This may be changing as these “green” amendments are increasingly seen as an important tool in the toolbox needed to fight climate change.
Peter Iwanowicz of Environmental Advocates NY, says “Our first goal was to actually add this right that most people thought they already had.” “What the amendment will do,” he added, “is usher in a new ethos of preventing pollution rather than merely controlling it or dealing with crisis after the fact.”
At the Glasgow Climate Summit, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized the human right to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” Some 150 countries already have some form of this right in their constitutions, but the United States does not. That is why this is being addressed state by state.
These new rights would give individuals and organizations standing to sue state or local government entities that are breaching their duty as trustees of our natural resources. But will they be overused, as some fear? Corie Bell, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer, doesn’t think so. “People who want to bring lawsuits under these amendments are usually very careful about the facts and careful about the use of the amendment because it is such as important right.”
Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to a clean environment was used to overcome a draconian law that required communities to allow drilling and fracking, gave the industry eminent domain authority, and included medical gag rules preventing doctors treating victims of the industry’s chemical exposure from sharing information about the dangers of these chemicals. In Montana it was used to challenge permits for gold mining.
New Mexico’s Green Amendment advocates feel the amendment will result in better environmental decision-making that prioritizes environmental protection and pollution prevention and will fill the gaps in existing laws. Opponents feel it may harm industries, including fossil fuels and mining. The House and Senate only decide whether or not to let the people vote on this amendment. The question will be: Do they think we the people are wise enough to decide this, or do they think we should be prohibited from even voting on this amendment?
Judith Polich is a New Mexico resident and a climate change columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.