Enshrining our right to a safe, clean environment

Published Tuesday, April 25, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

We Canadians are privileged to live in a wealthy country where governments have the resources to provide free services like health care and education.  Those free services are so deeply engrained into our national values that we’ve come to call them our ‘entitlements’.

But if we’re entitled to health care and education, shouldn’t we also be entitled to something even more fundamental to our wellbeing – a clean and safe environment?  

A global trend

According to environmental lawyer and Simon Fraser University professor David Boyd, the constitutions of 96 nations today recognize that citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment.  Included among those nations are Argentina, Brazil, France, Poland, Burundi, South Africa, Turkey, Iraq, Thailand and Russia.  

The constitutions of another 50 nations acknowledge the importance of environmental protection.

Unfortunately, Canada is one of only 44 nations whose national constitutions make no mention of environmental protection, let alone citizen rights to a healthy environment.  (Interestingly, Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 2006, does include the right to a healthy environment.)

Why environmental rights matter

Considered rationally, the right to a clean environment should be a no-brainer.  After all, our other rights, freedoms and entitlements aren’t worth much if a sullied environment prevents us from enjoying them.  

But according to David Boyd, countries that have enshrined the right to a clean environment into their constitutions have experienced benefits far beyond just healthier, happier citizens.

For example, most countries with enshrined environmental rights have subsequently strengthened their environmental protection laws to encourage prevention rather than cure of environmental problems – a sure-fire money saving strategy.  They have also improved the enforcement of existing environmental laws and regulations.

Armed with constitutional legitimacy, governments in countries with enshrined environmental rights are also more likely to have the political will to clean up pollution hot spots and put in place effective pollution regulations.  They are more likely to protect biodiversity and preserve endangered ecosystems.  They are more likely to set and achieve ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.  

Most people would agree those are pretty desirable outcomes.

What’s happening in Canada

The campaign to enshrine environmental rights in Canada is being led by the Blue Dot Movement, named after the iconic Pale Blue Dot photo of Planet Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990.  Blue Dot’s strategy has been to engage individual citizens, then communities, then (hopefully) provinces and the federal government.  

Impressive progress has been made: over 100,000 Canadians from coast to coast to coast have joined since it was founded three years ago.  Equally impressive, 150 communities from coast to coast to coast – including Beresford and Sackville here in NB – have passed declarations supporting the right of citizens to a healthy environment.

What to do

If you agree Canadians should be entitled to a clean and safe environment:

  • Take the Blue Dot pledge (found here); invite family and friends to do the same.
  • Since so much environmental progress can be made at the municipal level, why not ask your municipal leaders to commit to environmental rights?  Blue Dot offers a downloadable toolkit with guidance and key messages, and can even provide a draft Municipal Declaration of Environmental Rights.  Then speak to your MLA and MP.
  • Invite other groups you belong to, such as workplace, faith community, service club or not-for-profit, to endorse the Earth Charter, a UN-sponsored global declaration.  Hundreds of Canadian organizations already have, including the Université de Moncton, BC Teachers Union and United Church of Canada.

Saturday was Earth Day.  In its afterglow, why not support the growing momentum for a Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights?  It’s a critical entitlement for us all because, as the Lung Association says, ‘when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters’.