Environmental Amendments


An image of the Earth on a yellow background; the left half is verdant and blue with white clouds, and the right half is fiery orange and yellow with plumes of smoke.

Topping the list of consequences of the un-amendability of the U.S. Constitution is the inability of the federal government to address the growing inhabitability of much of the country and of the planet due to the catastrophes that are the result of habitat loss, species extinction, and climate change. Most federal measures in place to protect the environment, regulate pollution, and halt climate change date to the early 1970s: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Policy Act. The first proposal to address environmental degradation by way of a constitutional amendment came in 1967. One of the most promising was proposed in 1970, when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who also founded Earth Day, offered an amendment to read, “Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every State shall guarantee this right.” But by then, Article V was already broken.

The US is One of the Few Countries Without a Constitutional Environmental Provision

The US is One of the Few Countries Without a Constitutional Environmental Provision. Since the 1940s, the proportion of countries with a constitutional environmental provision has risen from below 10% to over 80% today.

Source: The Amend Project and the Comparative Constitutions Project.

In the 1960s and 1970s, rising polarization and a conservative counter-insurgency broke Article V. But the brokenness of Article V risks the environmental collapse of much of the United States and of the world. The majority of the world’s nations have written or amended their constitutions in the last quarter century, during what has been termed an “environmental rights revolution.” The natural world, long defined outside the realm of the political, as once were all women and many men, is now, increasingly included within it. Out of 196 constitutions in the world, 148 now make some provision for what is called “environmental constitutionalism.” Most are mere gestures; they haven’t stopped the world from burning. Still, in the absence of any language in the U.S. Constitution regarding the environment, all other federal measures are vulnerable: between 2017 and 2021, the Trump Administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, defanged the Environmental Protection Agency, and rolled back more than one hundred federal environmental provisions.

Amount of Environmental Amendments Proposed Over Time

Amount of Environmental Amendments Proposed Over Time