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New Inalienable, Environmental Rights Debated by Lawmakers, Policy Organizations

Connecticut legislators are proposing an amendment that would provide new “inherent, inalienable, and indefeasible” environmental rights to the state constitution. 

The proposed amendment states that each Connecticut resident shall have the “individual right to clean and healthy air, water, soil and environment; a stable climate; and self-sustaining ecosystems,” with the justification the ‘rights’ — “equivalent” to inalienable rights — are for the safety and general welfare of the public. 

Currently, the resolution does not specify how the state will create “a stable climate” or “self-sustaining ecosystems,” but several organizations debated over the amendment’s implementation and necessity during a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Environment, Feb. 27.  

Yankee Institute’s Meghan Portfolio submitted testimony opposing the new amendment, writing that while the organization supports a clean and healthy climate, the resolution is “unnecessary” — due to the laws already enacted to address environmental issues — and vague, which can result in costly lawsuits as is the case in New York, who passed a similar amendment in 2021. 

“It is important to ensure that Connecticut remains beautiful and environmentally friendly,” Portfolio stated. “But there are a variety of tools to achieve that objective without risking a host of expensive or unwelcome, unintended consequences.” 

Yankee Institute was not alone in its opposition to the resolution as it was joined by other groups such as the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), over similar, legal concerns.  

“If approved on the ballot, HJ-37 would grant individuals new, unfettered environmental rights with automatic legal standing to pursue litigation against the state, municipalities, and political subdivisions,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of COST. “We are concerned that this will subject municipalities to protracted and costly litigation based on undefined standards which could be used to halt local economic development and infrastructure projects.” 

Meanwhile, environmental organizations and progressive groups such as the Sierra Club — which boasts more than 40,000 members and supporters in Connecticut — and CT Working Families are supportive of the proposed amendment saying it will not only protect nature, but also improve the lives of communities most affected by “environmental degradation.” 

“These rights should be inherent to all people,” writes Ann Gadwah, advocacy and outreach organizer for Sierra Club Connecticut. “Enshrining these rights as an amendment to the State constitution would ensure that the government is protecting communities from toxic pollution and prioritizing environmental justice equitably across the state.” 

She added the amendment would give communities “tools to limit projects that would cause environmental harm and harm to public health.” 

Roger Senserrich, policy director of CT Workers Family, echoed those sentiments, advocating for urgent action to protect the environment — as well as an “enforceable legal right to a clean and healthy environment” — because climate change is “here with us, and its impact is undeniable.” 

“The harm from this environmental crisis, its impact, is not equal for all of us,” Senserrich said. “Pollution, toxic lands, dirty air, and dirty water are not evenly distributed in our state. The harm from climate change, and the emissions and environmental degradation that led to it, are concentrated on our poorest cities and towns, especially in communities of color.” 

The outcome of the proposed amendment is to be determined, as the Joint Committee on Environment has yet to schedule a vote whether to pass the resolution to the General Assembly. 

Andrew Fowler

Andrew Fowler joined Yankee Institute in July 2022 after four years in the communications department for the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven. In that span, he managed the organization’s social media accounts and wrote for the company’s various publications, including COLUMBIA magazine, which is delivered to nearly two million members. Additionally, he is the curator of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center’s online exhibit “K of C Baseball: An American Story,” that explores the intricate ties between the organization and the growth of the national pastime. He was also a production assistant for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the 2016 Dinesh D’Souza film, “Hillary’s America.” Andrew currently serves on the Milford Board of Education. He is an avid runner and basketball fan, cinephile, and an aspiring musician and author. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2015.

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