Decarbonizing Constitutions

46 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2021

See all articles by Quinn Yeargain

Quinn Yeargain

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Date Written: August 2021


The threat of climate change demands far-reaching, systematic changes to the global economy—and similar changes to how governments around the world set environmental policies. In recent years, many environmental policymakers have developed plans to “decarbonize” the economy. These plans provide detailed, sector-specific plans for how the latest scientific consensus on climate change can be incorporated into the policymaking process and for how the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved. But articulating the policies is one thing—actually setting them is another.

Frequently absent from this conversation is the role that American constitutions can play in averting climate change. Other countries, however, do not have this problem. Around the world, many countries’ supreme courts have issued bold and far-reaching decisions in the climate change arena. Many of these decisions have forced governments to comply with their commitments under the Paris Agreement; others have recognized environmental “rights,” possessed either by individual people or even by nature itself. And many of these decisions have been predicated on supportive language in national constitution. In the United States, however, no court has issued a similarly sweeping ruling—and few constitutions contain provisions that are meant to systematically address climate change or other environmental crises.

Accordingly, in this Article, I argue that state constitutions could serve a vital role in decarbonizing the American economy. I conduct a comprehensive survey of provisions in nineteenth-century state constitutions that affected the environment—through resource allocation, land management, water rights, eminent domain, and so on—and argue that many of the principles underlying these provisions could be adapted to contemporary constitutional drafting. I also critically survey the handful of environmental “bills of rights” in state constitutions and explore why these provisions have been largely ineffective so far. Ultimately, I argue for the ratification of state constitutional amendments that set environmental policies to decarbonize the American economy—and outline what these amendments might look like in practice.

Keywords: environmental law, constitutional law, state constitutional law, public policy

Suggested Citation

Yeargain, Tyler, Decarbonizing Constitutions (August 2021). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Tyler Yeargain (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics