May 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the ratification of Pennsylvania’s trailblazing environmental rights amendment.
Then-Pennsylvania State Representative Franklin Kury L’61 penned the constitutional amendment, which in broad terms holds the state government responsible for a clean and healthy environment. With the adoption of Article 1, Section 27, Pennsylvania enacted the strongest environmental amendment in the country. Other states, such as Montana and Hawaii, adopted similar provisions. On November 2 of this year, New York voters approved an environmental rights amendment to their constitution.
As Kury reminisced about the environmental victory five decades ago, he realized more needs to be done on a national level. “The world has changed dramatically since we passed the amendment in 1971,” Kury said.
He was compelled to write The Constitutional Question to Save the Planet: The Peoples’ Right to a Healthy Environment, which was published in April 2021 by the Environmental Law Institute.
In the book, Kury argues that the amendment he wrote 50 years ago should be applied to the U.S. Constitution in a move to save both the country and the world from climate change. Several other countries already have similar legislation in place, he noted.
“If the government can’t provide a healthy environment, what good is government?” Kury asked. “Freedom of speech, religion — what good are they if you’re dying from climate change? There’s nothing more fundamental than the right to a healthy environment and life itself.”
Organized in four parts, Kury’s book explores his process of drafting the state constitutional amendment; a history of the country’s relationship with the environment, the effects of the constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania, and how future American leadership must act on behalf of the environment.
Kury served as a Pennsylvania House Representative from 1967 to 1972. Before and after his political career, he ran the law firm Kury and Kury with his wife, Elizabeth. In 1983, he joined Reed Smith, where he remained about 20 years, and then worked for Pennsylvania lobbying firm Malady & Wooten until his retirement in 2013.
Kury acknowledges that passage of an environmental amendment at the federal level will be difficult. “It’s an uphill fight, no question,” Kury said. “You’ve got to get two-thirds of the vote in each house, and then three-quarters of states have to approve.”
He does, however, remain optimistic it can be done.
“All of those fires in California, the floods, droughts — sooner or later Congress is going to wake up to that,” Kury said. “We’ve got a lot of things to deal with — infrastructure, voting rights, racial justice, that’s important stuff. But this climate stuff is not going to go away. The climate crisis is here to stay until we deal with it.”