Environmental law and climate breakdown

| 28th May 2019
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses climate activists

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to climate activists during an occupation of the office of Nancy Pelosi. 

waleed shahid/Common Dreams
Environmental law has a unique opportunity to set requirements on what steps are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change to protect us.

Regulatory bodies must demand a greater degree of accountability for carbon emissions and excessive waste. To that end, environmental law is indispensable.

The escalating threat of climate change emphasizes the value of environmental law. With rising sea levels, fluctuating temperatures and an increasing frequency of natural disasters, these regulations are critical to the continued safety of citizens across the world. In 2018 alone, the evidence was impossible to ignore.

Hurricane Florence resulted in the fatalities of at least 43 people as rainfall surpassed statewide records in the Carolinas. Unprecedented wildfires swept through California, kindled by drought, wind and unusually warm temperatures. These are only domestic examples, but they speak to a far more extensive problem.

While it's possible to mitigate the effects of climate change — and protect innocent people — the solution is more complex than suggesting a change. Regulatory bodies must demand a greater degree of accountability for carbon emissions and excessive waste. To that end, environmental law is indispensable.

Relevant Examples

Environmental law governs how human beings interact with their environment. It covers a wide variety of topics such as air quality, water quality, waste management, chemical safety, contaminant cleanup and hunting and fishing. Many of these areas are relevant to climate change, namely, air quality.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 serves as a fitting example. Because of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set standards for what kind of toxic air pollutants that factories, cars and trucks can release into the "ambient air." Their objective was to improve air quality and protect the ozone layer.

Other, lesser known laws are equally important. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 requires a time-consuming environmental-impact study every time the federal government intends to approve, build or renovate something. The Clean Air Act and NEPA both set a positive precedent and brought about change.

Concerning more recent changes, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA needed to determine if carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were harmful pollutants under the Clean Air Act. They now regulate them as such. Of course, this type of law doesn't always occur at the level of the Supreme Court.

Environmental lawyers can advise clients in areas such as renewable energy generation and distribution, debt and equity finance, tax credits, capital formation and structuring, clean technology and "green" marketing. Well-intentioned individuals who partner with a reputable law firm can also contribute to the solution.

Pressing Issues

Though the value of environmental law is difficult to argue, it's still the subject of controversy. Lawmakers must give thought to the necessity, fairness and cost-effectiveness of their regulations, which isn't always simple. A cost-benefit analysis of an environmental regulation is often challenging to calculate.

Furthermore, people may disagree about the benefits of a regulation. Even with a calculation of its costs, the argument is far from over. A certain amount of diplomacy is necessary for environmental lawyers who have to explain the details of a complicated regulation to local and municipal governments.

The enforcement of environmental law also presents an issue. Many countries have environmental regulations, but not all of them comply. The alarming rates of deforestation, rising global temperatures and loss of biodiversity reflect a lack of progress, even with initiatives to manage these pressing issues.

Fortunately, regulatory bodies have strategies they can employ to strengthen enforcement, and, by extension, combat the issue of climate change. They can improve legal tools for civic engagement, fortify government institutions, increase access to all human rights and strive toward a better application of justice.

In making these changes, governments across the world can maintain their commitment to environmental protection. Though they'll likely encounter resistance, their continued efforts will prove integral to restoration. Otherwise, the natural disasters that devastated the country in recent years will grow in frequency. ​​​​​

Future Efforts

When government officials prioritize and enforce environmental conservation, they effect change on a global scale. The laws, regulations and agreements which preserve the environment are more than legislation. They represent something far more significant — the rehabilitation of a damaged world.

As the U.S. EPA and legal professionals fight the rising threat of climate change, their victories have far-reaching implications for the future. The safety and security of generations to come may depend on the work of environmental lawyers. With the challenges ahead, they'll have an important role to play.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here