Pennsylvania Legacies #143: Nothing More Fundamental

In 1971, Pennsylvania became the first state to guarantee citizens’ rights to clean air, pure water, and a healthy environment. Fifty years later, the state legislator who led the campaign for Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment is taking it to the next level. In his new book, Franklin Kury makes the case for a federal constitutional amendment to meet the unprecedented threat of climate change.

Franklin Kury

Climate change is a diabolically complicated problem  that demands complex and highly technical solutions. But in one sense, considering the stakes, it’s actually quite simple: there is simply no aspect of human life anywhere on the planet that will not be touched in the years ahead by warmer temperatures, higher sea levels, more extreme weather events, and the resulting social and economic disruption. Viewed through the lens of climate, most of the big, historic challenges we face in this century are ultimately just different facets of the same monumental ur-problem. Whether the subject is land use, food production, national security, the economy, human health… it all comes back to ecological stability.

“What is more fundamental than a healthy environment?” asks Franklin Kury, former Pennsylvania State Senator and author of The Constitutional Question to Save the Planet: The Peoples’ Right to a Healthy Environment. “The U.S. Constitution gives us the right to free speech and freedom of religion, but what good are those if we’re going to suffocate in climate change? There is nothing more fundamental than a healthy environment – without that, we can’t have life.”

Fifty years ago, when Mr. Kury led the push to secure environmental rights in Pennsylvania’s constitution, he knew that laws and regulations alone wouldn’t be enough to confront the Commonwealth’s most urgent environmental problems.

“It occurred to me that we really needed a constitutional amendment… because when you get something in the constitution, that’s permanent,” Mr. Kury told the Pennsylvania Legacies podcast. “That’s a matter of state policy that lasts forever.”

Franklin Kury served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1969 to 1972 before being elected to the Senate. After his time in the Senate, he joined the PEC Board of Directors, where he served until 2000. His new book, published on Earth Day by the Environmental Law Institute, tells the story of Pennsylvania’s Article I, Section 27, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. Despite being ratified with overwhelming public support in 1971, the amendment was effectively ignored for decades until a landmark state Supreme Court decision in 2017 abruptly put environmental rights back on the judicial agenda.

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

– Arti­cle 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution

The book goes on to make the case for an even bolder idea: a federal Environmental Rights Amendment.

“The U.S. Constitution is absolutely silent on the environment… so what this would do is say that the public natural resources are the common property of the people and that the U.S. government should protect them for future generations,” said Mr. Kury. “It would also establish a federal right to a clean environment, and that would be a great step forward because we don’t have that.”

Mr. Kury offers Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment as a framework for a future amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And while recognizing the difficulty of enacting such a sweeping change in the face of a largely dysfunctional political process, he notes that Americans are already demanding decisive action to stop climate change.

“Climate change is a very serious threat. And it’s such an imminent threat that eventually people are going to say we have to do something revolutionary to stop it, because you can’t keep going on, and if we’re going to save the planet we have to take revolutionary steps. And I think Article 1 Section 27 creates the right principles to act to stop climate change.”