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Ky. Legislature has ignored 'right to healthy environment' bill that sparked Montana climate case

View of rocky coast, lake with green trees and blue skies in background
Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM
Kentucky's Rough River Lake on August 15, 2023.

Young environmentalists won a landmark case in Montana on Monday when a court ruled the state violated their right to a healthy environment by permitting fossil fuel development without considering its impacts on climate change.

The decision hinges on constitutional language that some Democrats in Kentucky have pushed for years.

In the first ruling of its kind in the U.S., attorneys for the 16 plaintiffs, ranging in age from six to 22, focused arguments on their clients’ constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment."

Montana is one of three states in the country with a so-called Green Amendment that guarantees its citizens the constitutional right to clean air, water and a healthy environment.

In the103-page decision, Montana District Court Judge Kathy Seeley determined that the state’s Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment because it failed to take into consideration the climate impacts of fossil fuel development.

“Montana’s GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and climate change have been proved to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the Youth Plaintiffs,” she wrote.

Montana's Republican attorney generalhas said she will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Democrats in the Kentucky House of Representatives have sponsored similar legislation for at least four years, but Republican leaders have never given the proposal a committee hearing – the very first step of a bill’s journey to become law.

“Well, it died a slow and painful death. But I would say no Democratic policies have gone anywhere, the last few sessions,” said Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond of Louisville, the bill's most recent sponsor. “We've had discussions. We've generated as much momentum as possible in the last couple years.”

Language for Kentucky’s bill originated with the nonprofit National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, and has so far been passed in Pennsylvania, New York and Montana, according to the organization.

The act was included in a rewrite to Montana’s constitution in 1972, just two years after Republican President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, in an era of bipartisan support for environmental action.

But there is little support for a similar amendment in Kentucky among the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature. The chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, for example, denies the existence of human caused climate change.

Some elected Democrats in the state also don’t lean into environmental issues; Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear rarely talks about climate change at all.

On top of that, there's a high bar to amend Kentucky’s constitution. It requires a three-fifths majority vote in both legislative chambers, as well as a successful voter referendum to change the state's fundamental legal document.

Nonetheless, Raymond said she plans to file the legislation again in next year’s session and expects she’ll have more co-sponsors on her bill than ever before.

“And so this case, this ruling today shows us that it is a really viable strategy to ensure that the rights, especially of young people, for a clean environment can be protected under this type of law,” Raymond said.

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Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.