In August 2018, the Maryland Environmental Health Network and its membership of impacted residents in the community, health advocates and environmental activists came together to strategize on ways to confront the root causes of climate and health threats in our state. Among other ideas, we decided to raise our collective voice in favor of bold action. What developed was a proposal for an addition to the state constitution, now known as the Healthy Green Maryland Amendment.
While it may seem like a difficult task, amendments to state constitutions happen with relative frequency when the state legislature determines that there is a need. For example, Pennsylvania and Montana have amended their state constitutions to provide for a green amendment, a right to clean air and pure water for their citizens. Twice since 2013, individuals used Pennsylvania’s amendment (passed in 1971) to win victories at the state’s highest court to prevent fracking because of the health issues it causes. New York and New Jersey are considering similar proposals.
The bill for a Heathy Green Maryland Amendment, sponsored by Del. Stephen Lafferty among others, built on a 2018 proposal and made explicit the right to a healthy environment, now and for future generations, vested in the government as a plain duty to hold the promise of public lands and the enjoyment of them as a multigenerational pledge. This amendment, alongside plans to add community solar projects, clean energy jobs and climate-conscious transportation, would make Maryland the first state in the nation to realize the vision for a Green New Deal.
By taking the form of an amendment, this pledge would be bound by our state’s declaration of rights. And why not? That’s where we keep the highest values of our union, where we balance our freedoms for, and responsibilities to, one another.
We have built constitutions at every level to imperfectly defend against tyranny and oppression, and it’s more clear than ever that there is no greater threat to liberty in this age than what climate change will do to our way of life, our freedom to migrate, and our pursuit of the state vision of happiness, be it crab, beach, or Old Bay-related. All of it — including human health — is threatened by rising tides, eroded shores and development that occurs without consideration of these impacts.
A recent poll of statewide voters from OpinionWorks found that a resounding 74 percent of Marylanders support a Healthy Green Maryland Constitutional Amendment. Not only that, but 71 percent of Maryland voters are worried about climate impacts on their property, health or family. Similarly, 75 percent, including more than half of the Republicans polled, expressed concern about the weakening rollbacks or lack of action on climate change at the national level, with 65 percent of voters supporting increased action in the state to combat climate change. This is a clear mandate to ramp up environmental action in Maryland.
Although the Healthy Green amendment bill will not go forward in 2019, we have the opportunity in 2020 to give people the chance to make their own decision and hold a referendum in the state.
The 2019 bill may have been ahead of its time, but it was surely not ahead of our need for it. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program published its first Global Report on the Environmental Rule of Law, in January where it explicitly recognized the rights of future generations and the need for action on climate within a constitutional framework as a right to a healthy environment. The Healthy Green Maryland Amendment was supported by attorneys from four states covering the Chesapeake.
The validation of environmental and health rights is necessary, urgent, possible, and inevitable, if we can hold onto it in the face of the unsubstantiated fear of change.
Change is already here, and it’s coming at the speed of climate. Maryland could be well-positioned to act if we can recall that constitutions are meant to be shaped and sheared to meet the challenges of the time. Rather than become stale and held in unnecessary reverence — they should adapt to the challenge of the day to remain relevant.
In recent days we’ve witnessed one of the largest mobilizations on climate, ever. On March 14, 1 million youths answered the call to camaraderie, made possible by technology, and emerged in real life in more than 2,000 protest sites in 125 countries. Every shout, every sign, and every single body in motion (and empty classroom chair) served as a referendum for immediate action on climate and the end of incrementalism in the age of extinction level threat. More than a few gathered in Annapolis as a part of a growing response to the static promise of the legislative session.
And on hand at this year’s legislative session was 14-year-old Kallan Benson, a single silent protester, an energetic standard bearer for her generation. Kallan dedicated 90 days of her young life to protest, preceding the weekly gatherings for #climatestrike Fridays. She was supported by numerous faith partners and members of ecumenical traditions who have long understood that creation care happens beyond church halls.
It’s time to admit that we are at the end of incremental campaigning for piecemeal wins. It’s time to go big or risk our place on the planet.
A growing number of legislators recognize the necessity of action at this scale, and understand the power of an environmental rights amendment. During a hearing for the bill, our favorite inquiry (paraphrased here) came from Del. Vaughn Stewart, who asked how we could reasonably hesitate to act on climate and health when Maryland has considered constitutional amendments to enable sports, slots and marijuana, among other things.
It’s time to “go big.” We have the entire future of Maryland to consider — and it demands action. Our mandate is scrawled on the placards of tweens and teens. Let’s follow their direction to act, and do it next in the run-up to the next general election. Otherwise, we may have no place to call home.