Cole Cochrane, 18, is one of the leaders of the Maine Youth Action Network, whose members are heartened by the recent court decision in Montana that sided with young environmental activists and their claim to a constitutional right for a healthy and clean environment. Young climate change activists in Maine hope to bring forth an amendment in the next legislative session that would put environmental concerns at the forefront of policy decisions. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A recent court decision in Montana citing that state’s constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment is being cheered by climate activists around the country.

But it has special significance for advocates in Maine who are fighting to establish a similar constitutional right to combat climate change and other environmental threats here.

Last year, the Legislature voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have put climate change at the forefront of public policy decisions. Only one Republican joined Democrats and independents to back the proposal – short of the two-thirds support needed to send the measure to voters.

Lawmakers will take up the proposal again next session with one key difference – this time, the campaign is being led youth organizers.

Edgecomb residents and longtime climate activists Anne D. “Andy” Burt and Michele Henkin had been leading efforts to pass the so-called Pine Tree Amendment for the last three years. But this time around, they’re happily playing a supporting role for youth activists with groups like Maine Youth Action and Maine Youth for Climate Justice.

“Being able to look at the big picture and the long picture – that’s what youth bring to this,” said Burt, 78. “They see what’s happening in their future.”


Cole Cochrane, a Saco resident and incoming freshman at Harvard University, is the co-founder of Maine Youth Action, a grassroots organization seeking to engage youth in the political process. He said taking the lead role in the Pine Tree Amendment campaign seemed to be a natural fit for the group he started in 2021 with Yarmouth activist Anna Seigel.

Unlike last year, supporters did not have a heavy lobbying presence in Augusta during the first session.

Joyce Polyniak, of Topsham, holds a sign in support of the Pine Tree Amendment as representatives walk into the House chamber on March 22, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

Instead, Cochrane said they’ve focused on public education, especially with the business community. He’s hoping that support from businesses and farmers, coupled with the strong public backing of young people and environmentalists, will help win over Republicans and send the amendment to voters.

“We want to make sure other people are aware of this campaign,” the 18-year old said. “We want to focus more on that grassroots organizing to present to the Legislature that we do have a diverse movement, and this is not some niche group of people that are advocating for a right to a healthy environment. This is commonsense for all Mainers.”

Industry groups representing farmers, builders and forest products and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce opposed the proposal at a public hearing in the spring.

Climate scientists warn that time is running out to avoid the most devastating affects of climate change that is causing more intense weather events, ranging from rising seas, heavy rainfall and flooding to droughts and massive wildfires, like those currently impacting Canada and Hawaii.


Activists are urging aggressive action to reduce fossil fuels by transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and decreasing the number of gas-fueled automobiles on the road.

Canada Wildfires

Smoke from wildfires fills the air in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Saturday. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

In Maine, environmental groups are pushing the state Department of Environmental Protection to adopt a rule that would require car manufacturers to increase the number of electric vehicles they offer for sale. California has a similar law. A public hearing on the proposed rule drew about 150 people to the Augusta Civic Center.

While Gov. Janet Mills and the Democrat-controlled Legislature are prioritizing climate policies, including solar and offshore wind, Rep. Maggie O’Neil, D-Saco, said that may not always be the case, and future administrations could undo the state’s existing climate policies. That’s why she’s sponsoring the Pine Tree Amendment this session.

“A constitutional amendment is a backstop against laws or actions a government may make,” O’Neil said, turning to a baseball analogy. “You have a backstop that protects the audience from being hit by foul balls or missed pitches. You might have the best catcher in the world or a bad one, but you’re still going to want that backstop just in case.”

O’Neil’s bill received a party-line vote in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the spring, after a three-hour public hearing. The bill never received a floor vote, but it was carried over to the second session.

O’Neil hopes to address lawmakers’ concerns about the bill being too vague and inviting unintended consequences before the House votes. She said opponents have pointed to a pending lawsuit that seeks to end Maine’s ban on Sunday hunting by citing a new constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2021 guaranteeing a right to food.


While the lower court upheld the Sunday hunting ban, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is slated to hear oral arguments on the case this fall. O’Neil hopes a similar ruling will allay concerns.

Advocates, meanwhile, have a fresh example about how such an amendment could be used to shape public policy.

Last week, a Montana court sided with youth activists who sued the state for not considering climate impacts on policy decisions. That state, which is a heavy gas and oil producer, added a right to a clean and healthy environment in 1972.

Youth activists successfully used that constitutional right to overturn a state law prohibiting climate impacts from being considered in fossil fuel projects. The state said it would appeal the ruling.

Both Burt and Cochrane said they expect the ruling will fuel the Pine Tree Amendment movement here.

“I feel like it’s really put wind in our sails,” Burt said.


Cochrane said he was “ecstatic” about the ruling siding with youth activists like his group, saying “what we have seen in Montana could be the narrative in Maine.”

“It was a freeing moment, and it showed movement,” he said. “It showed that these constitutional rights we’re trying to bestow on Mainers is not something that’s purely symbolic.”

The shift in leadership also serves to send another message – that the next generation is in it for the long haul.

“Clean air, clean water and a livable environment is something that we need a backstop for,” O’Neil said. “People across the state have been organizing on this for years and are going to keep working until it happens, so it’s just a matter of when.”

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