Tag Archives: Environmental Law

What the Sharing Economy and Environmental Law Have In Common

Kellen Zale, When Everything is Small: The Regulatory Challenge of Scale in the Sharing Economy, San Diego L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

There has been a lot of literature about the so-called “sharing” economy lately, in particular focusing on the conflicts over whether and how that economy will fit within the existing regulatory systems at the local, state, and federal levels. And at first blush, the question of whether Uber drivers should be regulated as taxis or not doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with the standard concerns of environmental law—particularly the regulation of large industrial sources of pollution.

But as Kellen Zale’s excellent article points out, the problems that the sharing economy poses to existing regulatory systems are ones that we have seen before, and ones that we will see again. Zale notes that the sharing economy poses regulatory challenges precisely because of its scale of a large number of small activities—thousands and thousands of individual drivers working for Uber or Lyft, or of homeowners renting through Air BnB. Large numbers of individually small activities are incredibly difficult to regulate effectively, and that regulation can impose substantial social costs. As a result, the law has traditionally exempted many small scale actions from regulation. On the other hand, the accumulation of all of these individually small actions can impose significant harms on neighbors, communities, and the environment. For instance, the congestion and noise impacts of large numbers of Air BnB rentals have been a source of major complaint in some tourist communities. Zale also identifies how the sharing economy is but one example of this phenomenon—a growth of the impacts from individually small activities to the point at which regulation is required—and discusses how it can be discerned in a range of areas, including landlord-tenant law.

I particularly enjoyed Zale’s efforts to identify solutions to the challenges posed by the sharing economy—options including co-regulation (in which the private industry is part of enforcement efforts in cooperation with the government), the use of private standards, and simple fee structures. While Zale certainly does not exhaust the range of possible options, her efforts are an important starting point for developing policy responses.

While Zale’s work focuses on the sharing economy, I think the issues she identifies, the questions she asks, and the policy ideas she develops will be important for environmental law far beyond the sharing economy. The future of the next century will be increasingly a story of rising human pressures on our planet as a result of the accumulation of billions of individual decisions about how to use resources and what lifestyles to live. In major urban areas in the United States, much current air pollution is the result of activities as small as filling gasoline tanks in cars, painting houses, dry cleaning clothes, and burning wood in fireplaces. Some of these challenges can be covered by upstream regulation (e.g., reformulating paints to reduce emissions, more efficient gas tanks). Others will require more direct intervention in individual activities (e.g., enforcing requirements on separating recycling materials from trash, restricting the use of fireplaces). Ensuring that these regulations will be politically palatable and fair in the burdens they impose on individuals will require the development of many creative solutions along the lines Zale develops. I am glad she has helped start that conversation.

Cite as: Eric Biber, What the Sharing Economy and Environmental Law Have In Common, JOTWELL (January 13, 2017) (reviewing Kellen Zale, When Everything is Small: The Regulatory Challenge of Scale in the Sharing Economy, San Diego L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN), http://lex.jotwell.com/what-the-sharing-economy-and-environmental-law-have-in-common/.
 
 

Noticing, and Commenting on, Settlements

Courtney R. McVean & Justin R. Pidot, Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law, 39 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 191 (2015).

As a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Section, I tried two cases to judgment in my first three years of practice. During fifteen years at the DOJ thereafter, almost every case I touched – including some during a brief stint as an appellate lawyer – settled. So this succinctly-titled article immediately caught my eye.

In Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law, Courtney McVean and Justin Pidot focus not on enforcement litigation but on how the federal government settles cases in which agencies are sued for allegedly violating environmental statutes. McVean (a 2014 graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law) and Pidot (a former DOJ attorney who was then an Assistant Professor at Denver) consider the persistent criticism that the Executive Branch’s settlement practices make policy in ways that violate administrative law norms. Their careful analysis concludes that most environmental settlements are consistent with the procedural constraints of administrative law and that existing judicial review mechanisms are adequate to correct the occasional settlements that overreach.

To make sense of a large number of settlements of claims brought under diverse federal statutes, McVean and Pidot divide settlements into three categories based on the commitments agencies make to resolve cases: resource allocations settlements, procedural settlements, and substantive settlements. As the authors acknowledge, this typology is not entirely new; it tweaks a classification scheme proposed by Jeffrey Gaba more than thirty years ago.1 The tweak, though small, is important: McVean and Pidot rename as “resource allocation settlements” the class that Gaba called “scheduling agreements.” “Resource allocation” is a more comprehensive label; as McVean and Pidot show, agreeing to a specific timetable is not the only way that settling agencies commit to devote resources to the particular administrative action for which a plaintiff sued. More important, “resource allocation” focuses on the effect that a settlement of this type has on the agency that agrees to it, which is where the emphasis should be in assessing whether such settlements run afoul of legal constraints on agency behavior.

Using a handful of recently or currently controversial settlements, McVean and Pidot systematically evaluate whether each of several common criticisms validly applies to each category of settlement. No, resource allocation settlements do not offend judicially-enforced administrative law norms, because agency choices about resource allocation (absent Congressional earmarking) are quintessentially discretionary and typically insulated from judicial review. Therefore, an agency’s binding agreement to make a final decision on some issue by a specified date is no different from a choice the agency could have made on its own, without any public involvement or judicial second-guessing, even in the absence of a suit seeking to compel a decision. No, process settlements do not violate public participation requirements because the Administrative Procedure Act exempts procedural rules from notice-and-comment, and courts give agencies wide latitude in making procedural choices so long as the statutory minima are satisfied.2 Finally, no, even substantive settlements do not improperly skirt public participation and other administrative law obligations, provided that the settlement itself is subject to notice-and-comment procedures or the action that the agency agrees to take is itself subject to judicial review that can include review of the propriety of the agency’s commitment to the action in the settlement.

McVean and Pidot acknowledge that substantive settlements, in which agencies commit not only to act but to act in a particular way, pose a risk of circumventing administrative law. They express special concern about deregulatory decisions embodied in settlements, although their example of an improper substantive settlement involves an agency’s agreement to limit environmentally harmful activities by persons who were not party to the litigation being settled. They use this example to support their contention that courts can police substantive settlements using existing law, either on collateral attack or by direct review of the settlements themselves.

Direct review of substantive settlements, McVean and Pidot assert, is not functionally different from arbitrary-and-capricious review of regulatory decisions made outside the settlement context. Perhaps my reaction to this assertion is colored by my experience entering environmental enforcement consent decrees with their “double layer of swaddling,”3 but to my mind this claim, which the authors support, but thinly, is one of the article’s few points that is open to question. It would be good to see future work rigorously comparing judicial review of substantive regulatory settlements to judicial review outside the settlement context, notwithstanding the difficulty of making that comparison in light of courts’ very malleable application of the arbitrary-and-capricious standard.

The legal analysis in Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law also suggests other opportunities for future scholarship aimed more directly at agency incentives and behavior. In today’s political milieu, the criticism of environmental settlements comes from the right, alleging that agencies implicitly invite lawsuits from their environmentalist friends and cut sweetheart deals to achieve their environmentalist ends. But the lawsuits allege that agencies have not done enough to protect the environment. In deadline suits, the negotiated timetable inevitably requires agency action well after the deadline imposed by statute. Why would eager-beaver regulators prefer a strategy of missed deadlines, lawsuits, and settlements to a strategy of meeting regulatory deadlines in the first place? Because McVean and Pidot show that “to evade the requirements of administrative law” is not the answer, the underlying premise of the agencies’ critics seems doubtful. Study of agencies’ actual dynamic response to being sued could be very enlightening.

Overall, McVean and Pidot persuasively demolish the argument that environmental settlements subvert administrative law’s imperatives. Their analysis, as they conclude, exposes criticism of environmental settlements “for what it is: a war of words relying on emotionally charged rhetoric to score political points.” (P. 239.) To put that conclusion slightly differently, Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law shows that the current complaints about the process of settling environmental lawsuits are stalking horses for disagreements with the substance of the current administration’s environmental policies.

Quite fairly, McVean and Pidot acknowledge that the source of criticism of environmental settlements has varied with the political winds. The same arguments now made by Republican legislators and business-oriented interest groups were made, during the George W. Bush Administration, by Democratic legislators and environmentally oriented interest groups. Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law thus also demonstrates that environmental law, which since the 1970’s has been thoroughly entwined with administrative law, is again illustrating an administrative law truism: when thinking about imposing procedural burdens on agencies, be careful what you wish for, because the process you love today may be the process you hate after the next presidential election. McVean and Pidot have contributed a powerful defense of the need to maintain environmental agencies’ flexibility to settle cases brought against them.



  1. Jeffrey M. Gaba, Informal Rulemaking by Settlement Agreement, 73 Geo. L.J. 1241, 1243-48 (1985). []
  2. See Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 549 (1978). []
  3. United States v. Cannons Engineering Corp., 899 F.2d 79, 84 (1st Cir. 1990) []
Cite as: Steve Gold, Noticing, and Commenting on, Settlements, JOTWELL (September 14, 2016) (reviewing Courtney R. McVean & Justin R. Pidot, Environmental Settlements and Administrative Law, 39 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 191 (2015)), http://lex.jotwell.com/noticing-and-commenting-on-settlements/.
 
 

Environmental Law and Justice in the Anthropocene Era

Angela Harris, Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene, 6 Wash. & Lee J. Energy Climate & Env't 96 (2014).

The future is the Anthropocene Epoch – or at least some geologists argue that human activities now dominate global systems like the oceans and climate in qualitatively different way in the past, justifying the identification of a new geological era. Certainly human impacts on climate change provide a strong example to support this claim. Legal scholars are only just now coming to terms with what (if any) significant implications the Anthropocene might have for our legal system.

One thing I particularly like about Angela Harris’ piece (Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene) is that it takes on the big question of whether and how the Anthropocene matters. Harris argues that the Anthropocene matters because in an era in which humans are changing global systems, there will be ongoing and major impacts on all humans, but especially the most vulnerable – in other words, changes in our global environment will have a particular salience for populations that have less political or economic power. After all, it is no accident that among the countries most vulnerable to the sea-level rise that is a product of climate change is Bangladesh, a poor and politically weak country where tens of millions of people may be displaced. As Harris notes, understanding how climate change affects those without political or economic political power is a key part of beginning a conversation about the relationship between the Anthropocene and critical legal theory.

A related major point that Harris makes is that human dominance of the global environment in the Anthropocene makes clear the interconnectedness of social and environmental decisionmaking. How we manage the global environment necessarily requires us to consider how we structure our societies and economies. Reciprocally, we cannot understand how our societies and economies function without understanding the role that the global environment plays in sustaining or impacting them.

Harris argues that accordingly we should identify two key principles of governance: One, that environmental protection and human rights are equal, joint, and indivisible components of just governance in the Anthropocene (the indivisibility principle); and two, that in making decisions about how to effectuate environmental protection and human rights, we should obey an anti-subordination principle that rejects oppression of any groups of humans, with a particular focus on historically oppressed populations such as racial, religious, and ethnic minorities.

I am excited about Harris’s connection of the future of environmental protection – as encapsulated in the concept of the Anthropocene – with issues of justice writ large. One problem for environmental protection in the twentieth century was the all-too-long delay between the initial development of the modern environmental movement, and engagement of historically oppressed groups that have born disproportionate environmental burdens. I hope that Harris’s piece is the beginning of ensuring that the difficult and important conversations we have about the environment in the next 100 years are more inclusive and more comprehensive.

As with any excellent piece, it raises questions about the next steps – questions that will be hard to answer. Here, I want to focus on one important follow-on question: Harris (rightly) places a strong emphasis on maintaining a critical, watchful eye to ensure that anti-subordination principles are not evaded in practice. Similar problems arise in the context of environmental decisionmaking – where human nature to focus on the short-term, the immediate, and the proximate leads us to downplay the long-term and large-scale implications of decisions, the implications that lead to environmental degradation. How can we ensure that environmental protection is not (effectively) made secondary to short-term economic pressures, particularly when economic growth can be framed as essential to meet the urgent need to raise billions out of poverty?

The importance of the question is highlighted by disputes in two countries that Harris identifies as leaders in trying to respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene: Ecuador and Bolivia. As Harris notes, both countries have enshrined in their laws and constitutions protection of the environment, broadly defined, and human rights, including indigenous populations. Yet both countries have also wrestled with contentious disputes about government-sponsored projects to extract fossil fuels from biologically significant forestlands, over the objections of many of the indigenous inhabitants of those lands. The legal frameworks these countries have developed are perhaps not (yet) adequate to satisfactorily resolve these disputes.

Harris’s indivisibility principle attempts to reduce the risk that environmental protection will come second to economic development. But I wonder if we can do more. Much of modern American environmental law can be understood as an effort to reduce the risks of backsliding, of restraining ourselves from actions that would help us in the short-term but harm us in the long-term. Tools such as citizen suits, prohibitions on cost-benefit analysis, mandatory decisionmaking timeframes, and limitations on political influence for decisions all can help advance this goal.

How might such a tool to restrict backsliding on both environmental and human rights grounds work? One example might be a cap on the cumulative health risks from environmental exposures that any one individual should have to bear. It is the cumulative impacts of individual decisions that sometimes weigh so heavily on poor and minority communities – and a cap would ensure that no one individual or community bears a disproportionate burden from society’s decisions. While implementation of such a cap raises a range of scientific and legal challenges, it is a project worth exploring. The State of California has already begun cutting-edge work in this vein.

This one brief example makes clear the importance of the conversation that Harris begins with her article. I look forward to hearing more from her on the topic.

Cite as: Eric Biber, Environmental Law and Justice in the Anthropocene Era, JOTWELL (February 18, 2016) (reviewing Angela Harris, Vulnerability and Power in the Age of the Anthropocene, 6 Wash. & Lee J. Energy Climate & Env't 96 (2014)), http://lex.jotwell.com/environmental-law-and-justice-in-the-anthropocene-era/.
 
 

Speaking Truth About Power

Howard A. Latin, Climate Change Regulation and EPA Disincentives, 45 Envtl. L. 19 (2015).

In a four-decade scholarly career, my former colleague Howard Latin has never shied away from speaking truth to power. His writings have taken on all three branches of government, wealthy private interests like the auto industry, and entrenched academic orthodoxies (notably economic theories of environmental and tort law). More recently, he published an important book arguing that even the most ambitious conventional proposals to respond to anthropogenic climate disruption will not do enough, quickly enough, to mitigate the long-term harm that will result from high concentrations of greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere.

In Climate Change Regulation and EPA Disincentives, Latin casts a disappointed eye on the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions using its authority under the Clean Air Act in the aftermath of Massachusetts v. EPA. Given the ineffable magnitude of the danger, the Supreme Court’s acquiescence, and a comprehending President, Latin asks: Why so timid, EPA? Drawing on many themes from his earlier work, he answers by speaking truth about power: the fossil-fuel-burning generation of electric power, the pressures that exert psychological and bureaucratic power within agencies, and the limited exercise of regulatory power seemingly conferred by statute.

Latin focuses on EPA’s failure to require swift, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from existing and new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and their associated fuel cycles. With respect to existing plants, Latin argues that EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan requires emissions reductions that are too little too far in the future. With respect to new plants, Latin ridicules as meaningless EPA’s proposed New Source Performance Standard, quoting from the agency’s own analysis of the proposed rule’s effects: it “will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, energy impacts, benefits or costs for new units constructed by 2020” because the rule would require nothing beyond what EPA believes the market would have produced absent regulation.

To explain EPA’s cautious approach, Latin invokes the eight “laws” of administrative behavior that he articulated twenty-five years ago in criticizing the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Thus the patterns of agency behavior that Latin observes at work in EPA’s attempts at CO2 emissions regulation are neither new in practice nor newly understood in theory. Latin shows persuasively that these patterns are active by marshaling facts that will also mostly be familiar to those who follow climate policy issues.

It is no surprise, for example, to learn that politics usually trumps technocracy, and therefore EPA responds to political opposition to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions–which comes from officeholders of both political parties for reasons ranging from anti-regulatory ideology to parochial concern about short-term local employment effects to the need for (or fear of) massive campaign spending by those whose wealth derives from fossil fuels. Nor, unfortunately, is it news that Congressionally-imposed resource limitations, continuous criticism from all sides, and manipulation by regulated industries can debilitate the will of even committed career agency staff and well-intentioned agency leadership. Or that EPA is prone to avoiding regulatory steps that would cause severe social and economic dislocation, even if (as Latin contends is true for greenhouse gas emission reductions) regulation would have net social benefits. History amply demonstrates the truth of this group of Latin’s laws.

Two more of Latin’s laws describe other factors constraining EPA’s behavior that, although they have been observed before, are discussed less often in climate policy debates. Latin explains how EPA’s science-driven agenda can discourage necessary, but aggressive and risky, policy-making. Disciplinary norms push most scientists toward basic research and away from policy prescriptions derived from incomplete data, Latin observes, yet at the same time bureaucratic norms channel agency research toward reinforcing already well-supported conclusions rather than assessing phenomena that are only vaguely understood. As a result, Latin argues, reliability norms inhibit strong policy prescriptions while weaker, easier policies are not closely examined. For example, EPA has yet to analyze the effects on greenhouse gas emissions, over the entire fuel cycle, of the market-driven shift from coal-burning to natural-gas-burning electricity generation.

Latin applies his eighth law–that administrators of multiple-purpose statutes tend to emphasize only one or two statutory goals–less to EPA than to the myriad other federal agencies whose actions contribute to the overall effect of government policy on climate disruption. Despite Presidential directives to develop cooperative climate change policies and practices, Latin notes, these agencies continue to pursue specialized agendas that make attacking climate change harder rather than easier. He cites, among other examples, support within the State Department for the Keystone XL pipeline.

The contribution of Climate Change Regulation and EPA Disincentives is not so much in telling us things we did not know but in showing us how they combine to stymie bold regulatory action. The commons problem that has so frustrated global action on greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, underlies much of the political opposition Latin describes but also much of the reluctance to impose social and economic costs in the name of emission reduction: the benefits of individual action at the regional or even national level are perceived not to justify its costs absent effective collective action on a global scale. Internal scientific and bureaucratic norms insidiously enhance the effectiveness of external criticism.

Climate Change Regulation and EPA Disincentives also makes a more subtle contribution to the environmental law professoriate. We all know that the 1970, 1977 and even 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were not really designed to address emissions of pollutants like greenhouse gases, even though the statute’s language is broad enough to encompass those pollutants. We teach our students–who, after all, will be tasked with making mitigation and adaptation policy choices more difficult than even those we currently face–that what is really needed is legislation designed to attack the climate disruption problem head-on and effectively. Yet we despair of any prospect that such legislation will be enacted in the foreseeable future: certainly not until 2017 or later, and then only if the stars align. By showing us how and why EPA has failed to embrace the power it already has, Latin inspires us to envision a world in which effective national action does not depend on endlessly, fruitlessly waiting for Congress. By explaining agency timidity, he implicitly reminds us–and EPA–of the possibility of daring.

Ordinarily I would have been reluctant to write a Jot praising the work of a colleague at my own law school. I feel justified, however, because Howard Latin has just retired from our faculty. In what may be his last law review article, he again provides signal service to environmental law scholars and environmental policy makers. So I happily thank him for the mentorship he provided to me and for the scholarship he provided to the world.

Cite as: Steve Gold, Speaking Truth About Power, JOTWELL (July 27, 2015) (reviewing Howard A. Latin, Climate Change Regulation and EPA Disincentives, 45 Envtl. L. 19 (2015)), http://lex.jotwell.com/speaking-truth-about-power/.
 
 

Do Voluntary Compliance Programs Really Improve Environmental Law?

Cary Coglianese and Jennifer Nash have added yet another thoughtful contribution to the debates over whether voluntary compliance programs can significantly improve environmental law and policy. This thorough and careful empirical review of the most important voluntary environmental compliance programs is essential reading for anyone interested in environmental law and policy.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a strong strain in environmental legal scholarship argued that environmental regulation was too punitive, inflexible, and rigid. According that scholarship, regulation punished regulated parties who sought, in good faith, to comply with the law; it imposed regulatory standards without regard to the benefits of the regulation as applied to a particular regulatory party, or of the feasibility or appropriateness of compliance for a particular regulatory party; it was unable to keep up with complex and rapid economic and technological change. Many of these critiques were initially raised and made prominent by Bob Kagan and Eugene Bardach, beginning with their 1982 book Going by the Book: The Problem of Regulatory Unreasonableness.

In response to these critiques, academics, politicians, and policymakers sought to make environmental law in particular, and administrative law in general, more flexible, more responsive to economic and technological change, and more positive in the incentives it gave to regulated parties. “New governance” administrative scholars developed new tools for regulation and standard setting in environmental law. Eric Orts proposed the use of “reflexive environmental law,” in which regulation sought to make regulated parties more proactive about how they could reduce environmental damage, through (for instance) reporting requirements about firm environmental performance. Similarly, Charles Sabel, Archon Fung, and Brad Karkkainen called for revamping environmental regulation to create a “rolling-rule” system in which localities would set standards at the levels they thought appropriate, and central authorities would ensure regular and frequent monitoring and distribution of information about the success of those regulatory standards. Their basic idea was that the monitoring and production of information would provide impetus for constant, “rolling” improvements in environmental performance by localities, without the need to resort to rigid “command-and-control” regulation. (For an excellent summary of the literature and these themes, see this piece by Orly Lobel.)

An important element of many of these reforms was to encourage greater use of voluntary measures to achieve environmental goals. If some regulated parties will seek to comply with, or exceed, existing environmental standards for reasons independent of the possibility of regulatory sanctions, then treating those parties as if they were violators might be counterproductive, as Kagan and Bardach noted. Reformers argued that voluntary measures allow for flexible and immediate responses to environmental problems, without concerns about industry obstruction or legislative inertia. They can be tailored to local conditions.

State and federal environmental agencies in the 1990’s began experimenting with a wide range of voluntary measures to try and provide positive rewards to those regulated parties who met and exceeded regulatory standards. EPA developed programs such as Project XL and 33/50. At the time these programs were quite controversial, and EPA has since discontinued a number of them. However, EPA still has a substantial number of voluntary programs in operation, and many states have continued their programs as well.

Cary Coglianese and Jennfier Nash have produced what is perhaps the definitive assessment of how successful these voluntary programs have been.  Coglianese and Nash’s piece is a close analysis of EPA “flagship” voluntary program, the National Environmental Performance Track. The Performance Track program operated for approximately eight years, and it included hundreds of companies. Those companies promised to meet and exceed EPA regulatory standards in return for publicity, recognition, and some modest relaxation of regulatory burdens (such as reduced inspection requirements). It was designed to ensure active and ongoing improvements by companies in environmental performance, and to facilitate cooperative and collaborative relationships between EPA and regulated parties. Coglianese and Nash collected an impressive amount of empirical research in conducting their assessment: analysis of EPA data on individual firm characteristics and compliance; interviews and close analysis of a small sample of firms; a survey of a wide range of facilities both within and outside of Performance Track.

Coglianese and Nash’s conclusion based on their study – and on a long history of research that Coglianese, Nash and others have led on similar voluntary programs – is that voluntary programs don’t produce much environmental benefit. EPA never was able to demonstrate that regulated facilities that participated in the Performance Track had better environmental outcomes than facilities that did not participate; in fact, the only major difference is that participating facilities were more likely to value outreach and cooperation with the public and the government than those that did not participate. Moreover, participation in this program, even with hundreds of participants, was a tiny fraction of the total number of entities regulated by the EPA.

As Coglianese and Nash note, one of the problems with voluntary programs is that to get substantial participation in them, agencies must provide substantial regulatory relief (or other tangible benefits). The Performance Track’s rewards simply were not enough to encourage widespread participation. But in order to justify large benefits, the EPA has to ensure that the regulated parties are truly making substantial, additional compliance efforts above and beyond the minimum standards – something that was not cost-effective or feasible for many of the participating parties. Coglianese and Nash frame this is a matter of political reality – if EPA did not impose strong demands in return for substantial regulatory benefits, it would face political pressure from Congress or environmental groups. I would add that if EPA did give those benefits without seeking major contributions from the regulated parties, which would be tantamount to rolling back regulatory standards.

The results of Coglianese and Nash’s study are important for environmental law in many ways. First, they provide another example of the important role that empirical research can play in the field.

Second, their work provides an important contribution to the debate over regulatory flexibility and “new governance” in environmental law. It is certainly true that voluntary government-run measures were only one component of various “new governance” proposals. “New governance” scholars noted an important role for government coercion in producing the information that would result in improved environmental performance, and they also noted the possibility that non-governmental pressures and organizations might create strong incentives for increased environmental performance. But voluntary government-run measures were still an important component of many “new governance” proposals. Coglianese and Nash’s work should prompt us to reevaluate the role of voluntary government-run measures in “new governance” reform proposals.

Third, their work indicates that voluntary measures are not a panacea. Indeed, to the extent that they depend on regulatory relief to inspire performance, they may not have a lot of potential. Instead, non-legal factors will be much more important drivers of voluntary measures – as Kagan himself concluded in a co-authored study of environmental behavior by paper mills.

 

Cite as: Eric Biber, Do Voluntary Compliance Programs Really Improve Environmental Law?, JOTWELL (April 28, 2015) (reviewing Cary Coglianese & Jennifer Nash, Performance Track’s Postmortem: Lessons from the Rise and Fall of EPA’s ‘Flagship’ Voluntary Program, 38 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 1 (2014)), http://lex.jotwell.com/do-voluntary-compliance-programs-really-improve-environmental-law/.
 
 

A Legal Beagle’s Voyage

Nicholas A. Robinson, Evolved Norms: A Canon for the Anthropocene, in Rule of Law for Nature 46-71 (Christina Voigt ed. 2014).

Environmental law strives to improve the relation of Homo sapiens to the ecosystems that support human life and all other life on earth. Ever since Darwin we have known that just as each species affects its environment, the environment pushes back, exerting selective pressure in favor of adaptive variations. Evolution is the long-run product of ecology. At its best, environmental law puts this understanding to work in the service of people and nature. And yet, Professor Nicholas Robinson observes, the study of how human law shapes the planet’s evolutionary future barely acknowledges the role of biological evolution in shaping human law.

In Evolved Norms, Robinson sets out to correct this by connecting the contemporary emergence of consensus environmental law to the evolutionary emergence of widespread behavior patterns favored by natural selection. Drawing on sources in both the biological and social sciences, Robinson argues that humans have evolved instinctive, “hard-wired” normative preferences for cooperation, biophilia, and resilience. These norms are reflected in design principles that have shaped existing environmental laws – and that should be relied on to structure the global environmental law we will need to confront future ecosystem disruptions both imminent and distant.

An impressive range of positive law at every level supports Robinson’s thesis that these principles undergird the architecture of much existing environmental law. Evolved Norms finds them in New York State statutes, in constitutions of nations around the world, and in international agreements, as well as in high court decisions of many countries. They emerge in diverse settings, not all of which have been categorized, traditionally, as environmental law. The cooperation principle generates agreements for mutual aid in times of disaster and for collective management of common resources. The biophilia principle leads to legal protection of natural habitats and of biodiversity. The resilience principle promotes laws facilitating insurance against disaster.

A moment’s consideration that human beings are organisms, as subject to natural selection as any other species, suffices for the conclusion that these evolved norms must have some biological basis. Yet Robinson’s claim that cooperation, biophilia, and resilience have become built-in principles of environmentally sensible behavior seems based more in dogged optimism than in observed reality. After all, if these supposedly instinctive norms truly dominated human behavior (and the legal systems humans build to channel their behavior), the world would not be facing the “existential challenges” Robinson rehearses at the outset of Evolved Norms.

Robinson acknowledges this tension. He allows that “[t]he transcendence of ‘ecological instincts’ will occur incrementally and haphazardly” because the evolved norms favoring stewardship are often in tension with “maladapted ‘economic instincts.’”

The unpleasant question, though, is whether humans’ “economic instincts” really are “maladapted” in a Darwinian sense. The genetic traits that made Homo sapiens capable of such profound ecosystem modification, after all, are the same traits that conferred on our species such astounding evolutionary fitness. These phenomena cannot be separated, from the harnessing of fire to the use of tools to the domestication of other species and on down through human history to today’s extraction of previously inaccessible fossil fuels. Yes, there are examples of human settlements or societies that have failed because of long-term consequences of behaviors that seemed adaptive in the short term. But globally, our species has been – to invoke one of Robinson’s preferred evolved norms – resilient enough to succeed in spite of the apparent havoc it has wrought on other parts of the ecosystem. “Economic instincts,” then, seem to be a manifestation of Darwinian “fitness.”

On this question Robinson would have done better to distinguish more sharply between genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Robinson quotes Aldo Leopold’s observation that human instincts foster ecological competition while human ethics foster cooperation, yet Leopold understood that ethics directly restrain fitness-maximizing behavior: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” he wrote.1  Biological evolution has provided humans with the capacity to develop and apply such ethics: to conclude, for example, that it is possible to attain, as Robinson puts it, “sufficiency” in resource consumption. Cultural evolution, a product of genetics and environment, leads us, at least at some times and in some ways, to put that capacity into practice. This is remarkable in the biotic world. After all, the lynx preserves the hare population not because of ethical concern or self-interested foresight, but because when hares become scarce the lynx population crashes before the hares are all gone.

Sociobiology too has something to say about this, of course. Since the field’s founding, one of its central occupations has been to explain how natural selection could favor the spread of genes that produce altruism, cooperation, and other behaviors that seem contrary to maximizing individual fitness. Often the answer lies in genetic relationship: natural selection can favor behaviors that benefit siblings, offspring or other relatives even at some personal cost. As Robinson notes, evolved cooperation on this basis can extend too narrowly, if collective action is needed in response to problems of intertribal, international, or global scope.

In other situations, when the pursuit of individual self-interest in nature’s economy produces dysfunctional results (as it sometimes does in human economies), natural selection provides a needed if painful corrective. When humans introduced the myxomavirus to Australia in an effort to control the rabbits humans had previously introduced to the continent, the most virulent strain quickly was replaced by less virulent strains. The virus is spread by mosquitos, and mosquitos will not bite a dead rabbit. The rapid reproductive success of virulent viruses was too quickly fatal to their host organism and thus proved counterproductive to the virulent strain’s long-term survival. Mutation and natural selection promptly evolved viruses that killed less efficiently but spread more effectively. The rabbits in turn evolved resistance to the virus.2

The long-term success of myxoma virus in Australia depended on a balancing act – a type of stewardship of the virus’s host. Humanity’s long-term success depends on a balancing act that includes proper stewardship of our species’ host, Earth. Robinson’s insight that environmental law is based on, and should amplify, genetic traits that produce norms favoring such stewardship is an important contribution to environmental law scholarship. Robinson calls for “[s]tudies in law and sociobiology [to] begin in their own right.” It is a call environmental law scholars should heed.

Darwin understood that an organism’s inherited traits could be shaped by selection. After Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of DNA, evolutionary biology began a “grand synthesis” joining observational and theoretical population dynamics to genetics. Today, the power to decode whole genomes, coupled with increasing understanding of the environmental and epigenetic influences on gene expression, is rewriting large swaths of taxonomy and evolutionary theory once again.

It should be but a short, although difficult, leap to incorporate this biological learning into the study of law. Already neurobiology is undermining some premises of criminal law and the law of evidence, psychology is disrupting the claims of rational-choice legal theories, genomics is influencing the law of toxic torts. It makes perfect sense for evolutionary insight to inform the law of ecological stewardship. Nicholas Robinson’s Evolved Norms may not be to environmental law what The Origin of Species is to evolutionary biology. But Robinson deserves praise for having had the courage to step aboard the legal H.M.S. Beagle and begin the exploration.



  1. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac 202 (1949). []
  2. Peter J. Kerr, et al., Evolutionary History and Attenuation of Myxoma Virus on Two Continents, 8:10 PLOS Pathogens 1 (Oct. 2012). []
Cite as: Steve Gold, A Legal Beagle’s Voyage, JOTWELL (July 1, 2014) (reviewing Nicholas A. Robinson, Evolved Norms: A Canon for the Anthropocene, in Rule of Law for Nature 46-71 (Christina Voigt ed. 2014)), http://lex.jotwell.com/a-legal-beagles-voyage/.
 
 

Small Things Matter in Environmental Law

Most people, when they think of environmental pollution, think of large, industrial factories pumping out noxious fumes into the air, putrid liquids into the water, and barrels of toxic wastes into the soil. For instance, almost every newspaper article, blog post, or television story about climate change has as an image of the smokestack of a major power plant or factory.

Most people’s perceptions are wrong. It has long been the case that much of the degradation of our natural environment is the result of the accumulation of thousands, millions, even billions of individual actions by people across the United States and around the world. Climate change, for example, is the result of the decision of each of us to drive a car powered by fossil fuels, eat meat, fly in planes, heat our house with fossil fuels, and other similar, seemingly trivial actions. Moreover, these misconceptions are not limited to the general public or general journalists—environmental law scholars and policy makers have fallen into this trap as well. Even when scholars and policy makers have recognized the importance of small harms for environmental law and policy, there is often little information about how important they are, or what, exactly the implications are for our current legal and regulatory systems.

Two recent articles—Dave Owen’s piece, Critical Habitat and the Challenge of Regulating Small Harms, and David E. Adelman’s article, Environmental Federalism: When Numbers Matter More than Size—are welcome efforts to address the gaps in our understanding of how small harms matter to environmental law and why they matter. Moreover, they both are outstanding examples of a recent trend in environmental law to jump on the empirical legal studies bandwagon—both collect and use substantial amounts of data in their analyses.

Owen’s piece looks at a controversial, but underappreciated, provision of the Endangered Species Act (ESA): critical habitat. The agencies in charge of implementing the ESA (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)) are supposed to designate critical habitat for all species listed for protection under the Act. Historically, those agencies have resisted critical habitat designation, arguing that it adds minimal additional regulatory protection for listed species, but with substantial administrative and political costs. Owen first establishes that, properly understood, critical habitat should provide substantial additional regulatory protection for listed species on top of the other ESA provisions—and that those protections are most important for the accumulation of small harms to the habitat for listed species. Small harms to habitat include, for example, the paving over of lands within a watershed for residential and commercial development; each individual bit of development worsens the water quality of the streams within the watershed by a small, incremental amount. These small harms are not individually enough to trigger other provisions of the Act, but cumulatively might matter a lot for listed species. Another key example of this kind of harm is climate change.

Owen then undertakes some heroic empirical research. He compiled over 4,000 individual regulatory documents from FWS and NMFS to explore whether, in practice, critical habitat designation affects regulatory decision-making and whether the agencies are doing anything else about the accumulation of small harms to habitat for listed species. He finds that critical habitat designation appears to be making little difference for decision-making—even where the evidence is clear that in a particular situation a proposed development project will have small, but meaningful, impacts on the habitat of a listed species. He also—more surprisingly—finds evidence that the agencies are trying to use a range of other creative tools to address the problem of small habitat harms. Finally, he notes that small habitat harms are incredibly important, with the vast majority of the regulatory decisions involving individually small, potentially cumulatively important, harms to habitat for listed species.

Complementing Owen’s narrow but deep focus on a particular statutory provision, Adelman’s project is an effort to take a large-scale view at the problem of air pollution. Adelman marshals a range of data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other sources to demonstrate that large, industrial sources contribute only a small fraction of the overall problem of air pollution in the United States, particularly in the large urban areas where air pollution problems are most severe. Adelman then shows how the current legal structure of the federal Clean Air Act purports to give states substantial leeway to reduce air pollution in a “cooperative federalism” framework, but in fact gives states little power overall. Adelman notes that much of the pollution in urban areas comes either from sources primarily under direct federal regulation (motor vehicles and electric power plants) or from the accumulation of many small sources that are extremely difficult to manage or regulate (e.g., wood-burning stoves, backyard barbeque grills, dry cleaners, and the choices by millions of individuals about whether and how to undertake their daily commutes).

On one level, Owen and Adelman reach very different conclusions from their surveys. Owen believes that the current ESA implementation process, while it has substantial problems and needs some reforms, is the correct general framework. Adelman, by contrast, calls for substantial revisions in the Clean Air Act.

But, on another level, their overall messages are very consistent. Both argue that to address the increasing importance of small, individual actions for environmental law, what is needed is a wide mix of regulatory tools (e.g., command-and-control or market-based mechanisms)—from all different scales of government (local, state, federal). For instance, Owen notes that the case-by-case implementation of the ESA by various FWS field offices allows for careful tailoring of regulatory choices to on-the-ground political and economic reality. Adelman argues that rigid divisions between federal, state, and local jurisdiction in environmental law will interfere with the messy process of changing the patterns of individual behavior that are so fundamental to environmental problems today.

I’m not sure I agree with all of the normative recommendations in both of these pieces. But in the end, the most important contribution of both is highlighting how important the accumulation of small harms is for the future of environmental law, and providing some insights about how we might go about addressing this challenge.

Cite as: Eric Biber, Small Things Matter in Environmental Law, JOTWELL (March 5, 2014) (reviewing Dave Owen, Critical Habitat and the Challenge of Regulating Small Harms, 64 Fla. L. Rev. 141 (2012) and David E. Adelman, Environmental Federalism: When Numbers Matter More than Size, U. Texas Working Paper Series (2013), available at SSRN),http://lex.jotwell.com/small-things-matter-in-environmental-law/.