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16 Montana teens’ lesson for Floridians on constitutional right to clean water | Column
In Florida, we need to fix an environmental problem for ourselves and our children with a constitutional right to clean water.
 
Florida needs a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to clean air, safe drinking water and a healthy environment.
Florida needs a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to clean air, safe drinking water and a healthy environment.
Published June 29, 2023

A professor friend at a Florida university asked her students what they were doing about climate change.

Joseph Bonasia
Joseph Bonasia [ Provided ]

“We’re waiting for you to die,” one young woman said. She meant her generation is waiting for boomers to die so serious climate action can be undertaken. It was an over-the-top remark, of course, but unnerving, nevertheless.

More unnerving was her professor’s reply: “You don’t get it. You don’t have time to wait.”

In Montana, 16 young people haven’t been waiting.

While Canada burns and the world is being battered by extreme weather events fueled by climate change, these young Montanans just made a compelling case for a judge to rule a Montana law unconstitutional. Incredibly, this law prohibits state agencies from considering environmental impacts when weighing permits allowing the release of greenhouse gases.

There have been other climate cases in the U.S. brought by young people who don’t want to inherit a dangerously damaged planet from their parents (a case of generational injustice unparalleled in history). Those cases, so far, have been unsuccessful. This one, Held v. State of Montana, is different, and there’s a lesson here for Floridians.

These young Americans, unlike those living in all but two other states, Pennsylvania and New York, have a constitutional right to a “clean and healthy environment” as declared in a 1972 amendment to the Montana Constitution. The law in question, they assert, violates that right.

But the state’s attorney argued that the “issue at the core of this case is a fundamental principle of separation of powers. The power of the state ultimately resides with the people of Montana and the people of Montana are most directly represented by their elected representatives in the Montana Legislature.”

This is a disingenuous statement employed to protect special interests who rig the political system in their favor and against the best interests of the public and future generations.

This harmful policy is the law in Montana because the legislature there is “deeply entrenched with the fossil fuel industry.” Policy experts, The Guardian reports, “say Montana officials have shaped state laws around the financial interests of the energy companies.”

Through this lawsuit, armed with their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, these young people are looking to “untangle the fossil fuel industry’s grip on local and state government” so they have a better chance of inheriting a healthy planet.

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Here in Florida, special interests have a similarly powerful grip on our state government, and we suffer the consequences in the form of red tides, blue-green algae blooms, fecal bacteria contamination and dead manatees.

We know the sugar industry pumps millions of dollars into campaign coffers and then the Legislature passes industry-friendly laws.

We know the sprawl industry had much to do with Senate Bill 540, the notorious “sprawl bill” passed by the Legislature and recently signed by Gov, Ron DeSantis.

We know the fertilizer industry had much to do with the recent ban on fertilizer bans.

Floridians know this, but we have not been successful in overcoming the stranglehold these industries have on our legislature and the political process. Here’s the lesson for Floridians: With an amendment to our state constitution establishing a fundamental right to clean and healthy waters for all Floridians, we could.

In his closing remarks to the court, the young Montanans’ attorney said that it’s “worth remembering other times in our nation’s history when the political process didn’t work to protect people’s basic human rights … Time and time again, the political will of powerful majorities was struck down by courts, based on the compelling evidence before them, courageously correcting the injustices thrust on the people.”

In Florida, “All political power is inherent in the people.” That power includes protecting ourselves when the political process isn’t working, and regarding our waters, the process isn’t working. We need to fix it for ourselves and our children with a constitutional right to clean water.

But frankly, as my professor friend told her students, we don’t have time to wait. We have until Nov. 30 to submit approximately 900,000 signed and verified petitions to qualify for the 2024 ballot. In less than two months the abortion amendment has surpassed 200,000 petitions, so we know we can do this.

But not if we wait.

Joseph Bonasia is chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network. At FloridaRightToCleanWater.org you can print, sign and mail the petition. This opinion piece was originally published by The Invading Sea website (www.theinvadingsea.com), which posts news and commentary on climate change and other environmental issues affecting Florida.