Environmental Law Gets the Path of Climate Action
Decades of failure to act show that many existing environmental laws are “made for the oldest problems,” Wood said. During Nixon’s time, Americans were concerned about issues such as smoke, acid rain, and reduced landfill space. Some of the issues remain, but they are “completely extinguished by the onslaught of the oil and gas industry on the planetary system,” Wood added. While 20th century legislation could, in theory, be changed again to account for rising levels of atmospheric carbon, such laws have often hampered emission reduction efforts.
Get the Clean Air Act: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruling that the EPA can include carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases in what the law defines as a “pollutant,” even if the agency has the discretion if it so desires. Three years later, the same logic resulted in the Supreme Court judgment that people cannot sue corporations for excessive greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law, simply because the EPA has the legal authority to control such emissions. The fact that the EPA not controlling such emissions is irrelevant – just the fact that they are potential enough to stop the suit. While similar lawsuits may still be successful under state regulations, the Supreme Court decision closes, at least temporarily, yet another avenue of action.
Just as “environment” refers to people, animals, plants, and their environment here and now, environmental law tends to refer to equitable efforts to manage each natural resource – a charge of water here, a law of the forest there. “Climate” refers to regional changes, even in global weather patterns, and the consequences over time, the vision for climate law is a discipline that accelerates the reduction of bold, rapid, and holistic emission emissions. New tools-for controlling all carbon emissions, for redistributing the wealth of the fossil fuel industry to fund carbon removal, and more-are needed to address the there is danger we face now.
If you have one seminal year of American climate law, it hasn’t happened yet. While the U.S. and others have been debating national and international action since at least the early 1990s, it is a background full of wrong starts and broken promises. Recently, the U.S. joined, left, and also joined the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius at preindustrial levels. But the agreement has no real content mechanism for implementation.
Fortunately, the tide appears to be turning. At least internationally, new laws – with teeth – have been passed. For example, in 2020, Denmark passed a law demanding climate neutrality for the country by 2050 – and, importantly, there is a provision of (at least theoretically) force elected officials to come down if they don’t keep the country on the right track. And in May, a court in the Netherlands ruling Royal Dutch Shell has cut its emissions by 45 per cent, compared to levels in 2019, by 2030, which the oil and gas portfolio should have to take advantage of.
The hope, according to journalist Amy Westervelt, that’s a combination of great step in the science of dedication (which helps to connect individual severe events during a more severe climate change), investigative journalism has actually shown that the fossil fuel industry is aware of the damages to business practices. and working to hide them, and new legal theory, the U.S. will have some achievements of its own soon.
While Wood was a legal scholar, not a practicing lawyer, his ideas were central to the efforts. Shocked by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Wood devised a new approach called litigation of atmospheric dependence, arguing that courts should compel government agencies to protect and maintain the Earth’s atmosphere for public use now and in the future.