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Op-ed

Legislating a ‘healthful environment’ for Marylanders | GUEST COMMENTARY

In this country, your ZIP code has a greater impact on quality of life than your genetic code. A big part of this is due to environmental impacts and the unequal distribution of pollution. We would all benefit from cleaner air and water, healthier food, improved equity and justice. And yet, we are not guaranteed these rights in the same way our speech and assembly are protected. Leaders in Annapolis have the opportunity this legislative session to give the power to the people by passing a constitutional amendment to protect a healthful environment for all Marylanders by passing the Environmental Human Rights Amendment.

Combating climate change, improving environmental conditions and ensuring that everyone has access to green spaces would go a long way to improving public health. We know, for example, the negative impacts that heat and air pollution have on birth outcomes. Research has revealed that higher levels of air pollution and heat during pregnancy are associated with preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth, and that these adverse outcomes are higher among Black and brown moms.

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But perhaps one of the least reported, yet most disturbing, impacts of a degraded environment and unstable climate is the negative impact they have on the mental health of our youth. Youth see today’s policy efforts to respond to climate change as insufficient to the enormity of the task and feel a deep sense of personal distress, worry, despair, hopelessness and disappointment in the older generation. One hundred students from around the state gathered virtually and in-person on Feb. 18 to demonstrate their sense of urgency and existential concern to their legislators. One sign said: “You will die of old age, we will die of climate change.”

I learned a meaningful lesson from my colleagues the wisdom of our elders: we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, but we borrow it from our children. As it stands today, youth are seeing their future being stolen from them rather than stewarded for their well-being.

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In a 10-country survey (including the U.S.) of youth 16 to /25 years old, 45% percent said worry about climate negatively affecting their daily lives. A startling 73% of the US-based respondents said they are not optimistic about our ability to manage climate change, 68% say the future is frightening, and 48% feel powerless.

Most devastating of all is their sense that they are being discarded along with the earth, betrayed by the very adults and legislators whom they are taught are duty-bound to take care of them. Betrayed.

The good news is, passing the Environmental Human Rights constitutional amendment provides us all, and especially our youth, with agency and control. This constitutional amendment would enshrine rights to the people and enable them to pursue justice when they can demonstrate that they have been harmed by those who have disregarded their environmental rights. It creates a legal obligation that requires the government to protect the environment for generations to come. While agencies and regulations have been put in place to protect our health and the environment, they often fail in nuanced scenarios or fail to protect overburdened and underserved communities or fail to timely address emerging pollutants that threaten future generations. In short, as our youth know all too well, our current system sometimes fails.

If passed, the bill before the Maryland General Assembly would give the voters the choice to add an Environmental Human Rights Amendment to the Maryland Constitution when they go to the polls this fall. The amendment would codify the right of each person to a healthful environment and ensure that the state is the trustee of our natural resources.

As the preamble to the amendment says: “The full expression of human dignity is incompatible with a degraded environment; and a regenerative ecosystem and stable climate are essential to support a vibrant society and economy.”

A future uncompromised by a degraded environment is what we are promising our children when we pass this amendment — a life of opportunity no less than the one we adults were given.

And perhaps one that is even better.

Rebecca Rehr (rcrehr@gmail.com) is a board member of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and was a contributor to the 2021 report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate.


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