The following article, written by student reporters, is part of a series of reflections from the Climate Constitutionalism Conference, hosted by Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University on March 29, 2024. The event brought together legal scholars, activists, and students for a series of discussions on major environmental constitutional issues. Visit the GreenLaw homepage for links to other articles in the series.

Student reporters Harrison Bench, Patricia McKee, and Emily Petermann prepared this summary of the roundtable discussion. This discussion focused on the importance of rights and duties in addressing climate change featured panelist Justice Michael Wilson, former Associate Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, and discussants Natalia Urzola Gutiérrez, SJD Student at Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University and Chief Operating Officer at Global Network for Human Rights & the Environment, and William Piermattei, Managing Director, Environmental Law Program, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

1. Contrasting Approaches to Environmental Governance

The panel contrasted the United States’s market-based approach with the rights-based system seen in civil law countries. Both methods have drawbacks, yet each contributes to advancing the discourse surrounding the conservation. Achieving political consensus on environmental standards is complicated and protracted. Ms. Urzola remarked, “Rights might not be enough, but they ignite a policy determination. It starts the conservation that determines what [our] goals are.”

It was also explored how international commitments translate into domestic policies that enjoy constitutional value and power – exemplified by the French Charter of the Environment (“Charter”).  This Charter has equal significance to the French Constitution and enshrines the human right to reside in a healthy environment. Article I of the Charter enforces specific legal implications for lawmakers, emphasizing the need to weigh environmental considerations when handling legislation. This enforcement mechanism guarantees that France adheres to its international stance on environmental health. Pace participants elaborated, “It’s easier to agree on a fundamental ‘right’ than actual policy.”

2. Debating Rights and Duties

While most of the table agreed that recognizing and fighting for our right to a healthy environment was paramount, others emphasized the importance of duties and responsibilities. The conversation evolved into a debate on rights versus duties and the true meaning of rights. Although rights are empowering, they can be perceived and defined as entitlements, which got us here in the first place. The entitlement to consume energy, travel, drive an SUV, etc., are examples of how entitlements have contributed to the degradation of our environment. Additionally, rights were characterized as “feel-good,” while duties can be pragmatic and less personal. However, the actual work lies in fulfilling our obligations, including responsibilities and proactive actions towards the environment. Rights will logically follow if we start from a foundation of duties. The majority felt that rights represented something larger and helped propel a movement for environmental change: even if cases advocating for a right to a healthy environment are unsuccessful, they still attract attention and motivate people to fight for a healthier planet—achievements that in themselves are successes and can enhance voter engagement.

The discussion briefly turned to the rights of nature, a concept that challenges traditional legal notions by proposing that elements of nature have personhood rights—similar to individuals and corporations. This perspective appears more in civil law jurisdictions,[1]where rights entail inherent positive obligations. Our table also touched upon the role of “environmental defenders” and the UN Special Rapporteur, who focus on protecting specific sites, typically indigenous homelands, by applying a framework that grants individual rights to collective environmental entities. Although potentially slow, this model seeks to protect broader interests and future generations, aligning with global sustainability goals, but frequently clashing with national policies prioritizing economic considerations.

3. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Environmental Rights

Two important yet controversial questions emerged early during the discussion: do environmental rights work? Or, is policy more effective? The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (federal) and Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (New York State) have resulted in notable emissions cuts. On the other hand, emission reduction targets in jurisdictions with environmental rights are weaker than what is needed to comply with the goals of the Paris Agreement. But is this the only indicator of success for the environmental rights movement? The re Haw. Electric Light Co., Inc. case in Hawaii, the Robinson Township case in Pennsylvania, and the Held case in Montana are all examples of positive environmental outcomes achieved when state-level environmental rights are tethered to public trust duties.

A rights-based approach presents other challenges to combating climate change.

For starters, if amendments are vague, the strength of the environmental right may rely upon judicial interpretation, which may be made intermittently (when we need urgent climate action), without public input (which is antithetical to the notion of an environmental right), and/or without accountability (in jurisdictions without judicial elections). Even if an environmental rights amendment is clearly defined, it is still being determined who would enforce the right; environmental legislation, on the other hand, outlines the duties and responsibilities of the government.

The focus on environmental rights amendments might also inadvertently take the focus off of other important environmental initiatives and campaigns.

There is also a long history of bad actors using rights for despicable reasons: the right of sovereignty over natural resources has led to their depletion, and the doctrine of discovery resulted in centuries of colonization and exploitation. However, the individual rights movement has had a tremendous impact on minority groups in the United States.

There is also a potential conflict between different individual rights: could the right to clean air and a healthful environment interfere with the right to travel in a gas-powered vehicle? These issues, while unresolved in many regards, will need to be tackled as the movement for environmental rights continues to gain momentum across the country.

The discussions at the Climate Constitutionalism conference illuminated the complex interplay between rights and duties within the environmental context. As we continue to navigate the challenges posed by climate change, the insights from this conference underscore the importance of integrating both rights and responsibilities into our strategies. This dual approach ensures a balanced legal framework and fosters a more committed civic engagement, where everyone understands their role in shaping a sustainable future. The conversation has set the stage for further exploration of these themes and thinking about how we can get creative to protect our planet.




[1] The Ecuadorian constitution recognizes Mother Earth, Pachamama, as a legal person with innate rights to be protected. This recognition enables citizens and guardians to sue on behalf of natural entities. For instance, plaintiffs Richard Frederick Wheeler and Eleanor Geer Huddle sued on behalf of the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador in the case  Wheeler and Huddle v. The Provincial Government of Loja. They argued that the Provincial Government of Loja’s road expansion project to widen the Vilcabamba-Quinara road was infringing on the river’s rights. The Provincial Court of Loja ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, establishing that the right to infrastructure development does not override the constitutional rights of nature. The government was instructed to develop and implement a remediation plan for the affected areas and to comply with the Ministry of Environment’s recommendations.

Image credit: Our Children’s Trust #youthvgov, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons