Exeter, N.H. residents voted to recognize a healthy climate as a rightExeter, N.H. residents voted to oppose development that threatens the environment and recognized a healthy climate as a right. Photo credit: Chris Devers via Flickr
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By Dana Drugmand

The town of Exeter, N.H. passed an ordinance recognizing the right to a healthy climate, the second ordinance of its kind to be passed in the U.S,.

The law, dubbed the Right to Healthy Climate Ordinance, recognizes the “right to a healthy climate system capable of sustaining human societies.” Exeter residents voted 1176 to 1007 to pass the ordinance at the annual town meeting on Tuesday.

It follows a similar law passed by the town of Lafayette, Colo., which enacted a “Climate Bill of Rights” ordinance in 2017. These local right-to-climate laws are part of a growing movement by communities across the country to ban corporate activities that threaten residents’ health, safety and welfare. With assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), more than 200 communities have passed community rights ordinances securing rights to water, a healthy environment, sustainable energy and other issues. They prohibit an array of industrial activities from factory farms and dumping of sewage sludge to fracking and building fossil fuel pipelines.

Exeter, home to about 15,000 residents, is one of eight towns in New Hampshire fighting  a proposed pipeline project that would transport fracked gas across the Piscataqua River Watershed, an ecosystem that hundreds of thousands of people and countless species depend upon for clean air and water. The 27-mile Granite Bridge pipeline, a project of Liberty Utility, is not specifically mentioned in Exeter’s ordinance, which instead asserts the broader right to “be free from all corporate activities that release toxic contaminants into the air, water, and soil,” including from fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure.

“Our right to a healthy climate is an unalienable right. Any new energy infrastructure in our town must align with that right. We live here, and what we envision for our community comes before what any project developer and state government envision if it threatens our rights,” said Maura Fay, co-founder of the community group Citizen Action for Exeter’s Environment.

Exeter joins nearly a dozen other communities across New Hampshire that have enacted rights-based ordinances, according to Michelle Sanborn, New Hampshire community organizer with CELDF.  The town of Nottingham is set to vote Saturday on a community rights ordinance that includes a provision establishing the right to a healthy climate.

The effort to establish this right at the local level represents a new avenue for challenging the fossil fuel industry and the government agencies that approve its infrastructure projects. A handful of cities and counties are suing the fossil fuel industry demanding it pay for costly climate adaptation measures. And a youth climate lawsuit against the federal government is currently pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken acknowledged the plausibility of a constitutional climate right, writing in her motion that ordered Juliana v. United States to trial in November 2016, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”