Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Disruption as Opportunity
Jessica Owley is Professor of Law at University of Buffalo Law School
This is the seventh in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
- Environmental Disruption.
The world has always been full of disturbances, alterations, and disruptions. This has been particularly true when examining the ecological conditions of the Earth. Our planet has undergone many changes, even some drastic ones. Yet, the current rate of environmental disruption is unquestionable and unprecedented. Climate change is clearly the major disruptor, changing our atmosphere, our ocean currents, and our ecosystems. Humans are a particularly destructive species though and even without the implications of climate change, we are disrupting the environment. We convert species habitat. We pollute rivers. We overhunt. Our current historical environmental atrocities, however, seem trivial in the context of climate change. Particularly tricky is the unpredictability of climate change impacts and intensities.
- Legal Disruption.
Complicating the environmental disruption is an increased disruption of the American legal system. In the 1970s, the federal government began acknowledging environmental harms in our country and creating legal strategies to combat them. The goal of the Clean Air Act (1970) is to prevent and control air pollution. The Clean Water Act (1972) seeks to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s waters. The Endangered Species Act (1973) recognizes the negative impacts of humans on the environment and seeks a “means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species … depends may be conserved.” And with the clearest acknowledgement of human impacts on the environment, the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) recognizes “the profound impact of man’s activities” on the natural world and sets a national policy to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of [hu]man[s].”
While the effectiveness of these laws and the strategies they adopted is open for debate, they represented an awareness of environmental harm and a need to combat it. All of these statutes and others are now under attack from the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress. The Administration is seeking repeal and revision of the statutes along with changes to regulations and agency policies. Beyond the laws on the books, the Administration is also disrupting federal environmental law by dismantling the agencies that carry out those laws. The number of employees is shrinking along with departmental budgets. Science posts are being removed or left unfilled and scientific reports and language specifically prohibited or hidden.
While the assault on the panoply of existing federal environmental programs is disheartening, federal climate change policy is truly depressing. In 1992, world leaders (along with many others) met in Brazil and acknowledged the intense environmental, economic, and social problems caused by global climate change. Agreeing that the cause was “anthropogenic,” President George Bush signed the agreement and applauded the countries of the world in taking quick action to combat the serious problem of climate change. Despite this statement (and the U.S. role in shaping both the initial agreement and subsequent accords), the federal government has never been a true leader in the fight against climate change. However, the Trump Administration’s actions in this realm are so radical as to again merit the label disruptive. Shortly after taking office, Donald Trump announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Even more insulting, the only significant U.S. delegation at the last conference of the parties to that 1992 treaty preached increased use of fossil fuels. As with the disruption to our environment, the disruption to our environmental laws is unprecedented.
- Disruption as an Opportunity
The real conundrum for environmental activists and humans who care about the world is determining what to do in the face of this disruption. The paragraphs above paint a bleak picture and suggest that disruption is doing significant harm. A challenge then is whether we can turn that attitude on its head and make these disruptions opportunities. At our 2018 ELC meeting, Vanessa Casado Perez noted that crisis, hitting rock bottom, is what really spurs human action on environmental issues. If things are really falling apart at the federal government, maybe this disruption of environmental law will trigger new energy and action from other sectors. Disruptions in innovation are changes to technologies that can help sectors (and sometimes even societies) leap ahead to a new level. Creative ideas lead to new solutions.
One sphere where this environmental and legal disruption is inspiring action is in the private sector. While Inara Scott reminds us that the business sector can be a force for positive change there is also a strength in individuals acting on their own or joining force with the power of nongovernmental organizations. In this light, a turn to the private seems both logical and sensible. Citizens seek to fill in the gaps left by a withdrawn federal government. It is unclear whether they can work as effectively toward reducing the harms of ecological disruption, but in a time of legal disruption their efforts gain prominence. Three examples highlight this trend.
Citizen Science and Information Protection: As government agencies began scrubbing their websites of environmental information, particularly discussions of climate change, others began archiving the information and making it available. Private organizations like the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative formed shortly after information began disappearing from public websites. Groups that had formed earlier for other reasons (like associations of librarians) also took up the cause of protecting and providing information when they saw the need arise. Additionally, while the EPA may be employing fewer scientists, people across the planet are stepping up and collecting data to aid in scientific research and environmental monitoring. The rise of the citizen scientist is an innovation that can improve environmental information and outcomes if deployed correctly.
Increasing Support of Environmental NGOs and Land Trusts: After the election of Donald Trump, donations to environmental advocacy organizations rose. Public attention to environmental issues can be seen in events like the March for Science and the Peoples Climate Movement. Gallup’s most recent polls show concern for the environment growing in the United States, even as fewer people identify themselves as environmentalists. Land trusts are an interesting part of this trend. Like other environmental organizations, they also saw their membership numbers and dollars increase post-Trump. Their focus differs from traditional environmental advocacy organizations as they seek to meet their conservation goals through protection of individual parcels and working with property tools. By purchasing land and rights in land, they seek to prevent development and conversion of land to uses that diminish ecosystem services and amenities. Working with private landowners, they often bring new people into the conservation movement. Through working with property rights, they create restrictions that are more durable than federal regulatory mechanisms.
Citizen Suits: Finally, despite a hollowing out of our environmental laws, activists are drawing upon the citizen suit provisions contained in many of our key environmental statutes. While there have been some proposals that would impact some of the fee-shifting provisions of citizen suits, neither Congress nor the Executive branch has suggested repealing citizen suit provisions or revising the Administrative Procedure Act, which often provides the hook for environmental litigation. Law firms are preparing for an increase in environmental citizen suits and the environmental activists seem happy to comply. Thus, we can still look to our 1970s law for some solace even though we must acknowledge the standing hurdles for environmental citizen suits are nontrivial.
These examples illustrate how energy and innovation by private actors can be part of the story of response to the current disruption of environmental law. Taken together with other examples and proposals in these essays, they can provide us with a way forward if not quite a way out.