As with every winter, we here in Maine awake to the sound of crows cawing as snow blankets the ground, with the cold air hitting our faces. However, this will soon become less of a reality due to the climate crisis. Twice in the past few months, Maine has experienced a so-called “once in a generation” flood. This cannot continue. What we need is a state constitutional amendment recognizing the environment is a person and not some intangible concept.
The United States has taken some steps on this front. Last year, a Montana judge ruled that “state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by permitting fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate.” In Montana, the environment can no longer be exploited. Younger generations can no longer be deprived of the right to clean air or water. This could not have come any sooner, as increased carbon emissions mean increased droughts and fewer snowpacks are becoming a reality in Montana.
Similar effects will soon be seen in Maine. These include warmer Atlantic waters, increasing harm to the lobster industry, and more fuel for storms to dump greater amounts of rain, as well as bringing higher storm surges. This results in increased insurance costs on housing due to wider flood zones and makes for a higher cost-to-build due to supply chain disruption and the need for hardier materials.
Having a state constitutional amendment recognizing the environment as a person will bring many benefits to the State of Maine. Federally, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed under President Joe Biden has seen more clean energy investments by the Treasury Department, with more funds allocated to benefit economically disadvantaged communities. As a result of the IRA, more clean energy manufacturing has returned to the U.S., and new businesses have formed. Among them are 110,000 new clean energy jobs that have been created. This presents a good avenue for tackling climate change but will still prove inadequate as the “point of no return” for climate change approaches. Recognizing the environment’s legal personhood will be one crucial step in this direction.
The notion of the environment being seen as a person is nothing new. In 2022, the United Nations General Assembly passed such a resolution with 161 in favor, 0 against, and eight abstaining. The United States voted in favor of considering the environment as a person. The environment has the same inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” found in the U.S. Constitution. Without due process, these simple rights could be trespassed upon by anyone. With legal personhood for the environment, corporations will be prevented from exploiting natural resources. Some countries, such as Costa Rica, have taken a hard stance when combating climate change. Back in 2007, the government developed its plan “in a participatory way that includes all economic sectors, relevant government bodies and academic institutions,” allowing for a cooperative fight against climate change that combines proper oversight with a government plan requiring the enactment of legislation. The fight against climate change, however, requires more than one country or supranational body to prevent it. Every nation must be held to a strict standard that prevents the further exploitation of the environment. In Maine, this would be delivered through the legal personhood amendment.
The proposed constitutional amendment should guarantee the right of the people to a clean environment, including the air, water, and soil found throughout the State of Maine. This would ensure future generations in the state have a legal guarantee protecting their right to a healthy environment. Without such a guarantee, we will be left to the whims of legislators on the issue of making laws susceptible to being repealed if an environmentally hostile administration takes power.