Environmental law needs to get personal, Northwestern law professor

Northwestern University School of Law professor David Dana spoke about the state of environmental legislation at Wednesday's Science Cafe meeting. Photo courtesy of Kellogg School of Management.
Northwestern University School of Law professor David Dana spoke about the state of environmental legislation at Wednesday’s Science Cafe meeting.
Photo courtesy of Kellogg School of Management.

by Tyler Smith
Mar 18, 2010

Environmental law needs to needs to move from traditional smokestack issues to take on consumers and lifestyles, said Northwestern University School of Law professor David Dana.

In the past, environmental laws have focused on cleaning up major polluters. To have a bigger impact, Dana told about 30 people attending last Wednesday’s Science Café meeting at the Celtic Knot, an Irish pub in Evanston, that environmental laws should hold small businesses and individuals accountable as well.

The previous laws “didn’t really try to focus on how people live, land-use patterns, how they interact,” he said. “They weren’t really trying to change psychology, they were thinking of these end-of-the-tailpipe problems.”

In order for people to care about climate change, the change must come from inside. “Ultimately, you’ve got to get people to think about the effects people have in their individual [lives] and then bring it to bear in politics,” he said.

One thing is clear – decade-old legislation can only do so much, according to Dana. Change, he said, needs to come from individuals, states, and on the local level.”

“The older model of thinking it’s kind of a business cost and it will be taken care of, ultimately that has created some advances,” Dana said. “But it’s not going to really deal with some of these big challenges.”

Audience members asked Dana questions ranging from the difference between carbon taxes and cap and trade legislation to the ethics of asbestos removal. One audience member was curious about certain labels that listed chemicals known to be hazardous to the State of California.

Proposition 65 – which requires toxic chemicals to be labeled as such – was an effort by California legislators to limit exposure to known toxins. “To some extent, some innovation has happened at the state and local level, pushing the federal government,” Dana said. “So, California … has helped.”

Dana, a former trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, focused on the difficulty of achieving collaborative and cost-effective legislation in America.

The first federal environmental laws, Dana said, were established nearly half a century ago. “[They] really focused on immediate problems you could see,” he said. “The focus was on waste, pollution, and regulating the business sector, and as a result you got all these ambitious acts of the 1960s and ‘70s.”

These two laws – the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act – were focused on cleaning up existing pollution and damage to the environment.

Environmental legislation in the 1980s and 1990s remained largely dedicated to cleaning up America. “A lot of the talk was still in terms of clean air and water, clean soil, but it was really focusing on the cost,” Dana said.

Reducing industrial emissions was a step in the right direction, Dana said, but new legislation needs to attempt to address the causes of climate change. “The first thing environmental law really has to do to make sense is to be broader and less parochial than it is,” he said.

“American environmental law assumes only Americans matter. There’s a huge steel gate around the country,” he said.

However, it is clear that changes in one country will not be able to stop a global climate phenomenon. “It doesn’t make sense to talk about America alone, because if there’s disruption in the Middle East or disruption in Africa, that’s going to affect us indirectly in all sorts of ways,” Dana said.

Bringing about a significant shift in the minds of legislators isn’t an easy task, he said. “Climate is a hard issue to get people organized around because it’s sort of abstract,” Dana said. “It’s cold in the northeast this winter, so people are doubting. People are very visceral.”


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