On the list of basic human rights, it doesn’t get much more basic than clean air and clean water.
We all have a right to these essential components of life itself. Which means that governments have the obligation to provide them.
But clean air and clean water are not guaranteed in the constitutions of the United States or the state of New York. Not yet, anyway. Legislation approved Monday in the State Assembly would grant those environmental rights to all New Yorkers. The measure now moves to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.
Some perspective: First, the timing. The bill, sparked by a recent scandal upstate where state officials were accused of reacting too slowly to contaminated wells, comes amid actions by President Donald Trump and his administration that promise to harm the environment, including severe funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentalists are pressing states to take the lead.
Second, the State Legislature, especially the Senate, is infamously resistant to change. But the proposed amendment at least deserves debate. If a lawmaker thinks New Yorkers do not enjoy these rights, let’s hear the explanation in public. If he or she opposes the amendment for some other reason, let’s hear why.
The language in the proposal is simple: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
What would be the implications of this environmental rights amendment? Let’s talk about them.
Would such an amendment open the state to lawsuits? Would that be a good or bad thing? Let’s talk about it.
What has been the experience of the six states — Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island — that have inscribed environmental rights into their constitutions? Let’s talk about it.
And if lawmakers are unwilling to do so, there will be a public vote in November on whether to hold a constitutional convention to consider such amendments.
There’s more than one way New Yorkers can get a guarantee of clean air and clean water.