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When the Price Isn’t Right: Why Markets Aren’t the Panacea for Climate

Danny Cullenward & David G. Victor, Making Climate Policy Work (2020).

While climate policy in the U.S. Congress appears stalled, debates about the best approach to advance decarbonization continue at the state level and around the world. A critical choice is between two different philosophies for carbon policy: One option is to pursue some form of pricing on carbon (e.g., cap-and-trade or a carbon tax) and allow the market to advance the best tools to reduce carbon emissions. The other option is to embrace a range of non-market strategies, such as regulation, subsidies, and support for research and development. In making this choice, policymakers must weigh important questions such as the economic cost of a particular policy, whether a policy can even be enacted in the first place, and the effectiveness of a policy in achieving the ultimate goal of reducing carbon emissions.

There have been many electrons spilled in these debates. However, a recent book by two leading scholars in the field—Danny Cullenward, with the climate policy think-tank Carbon Plan and Professor David Victor of UC San Diego—entitled Making Climate Policy Work, provides a thoughtful assessment of this critical tradeoff and comes down on the side of non-market alternatives.

Cullenward and Victor’s critique of carbon markets is both comprehensive and devastating. In their view, carbon markets offer prices for carbon that are too low to meaningfully drive the investment and innovation we need to develop and deploy the technologies required to decarbonize our economies. Additionally,  carbon markets are unlikely to produce the high prices needed to drive investment. Setting high prices would require imposing heavy costs on politically powerful incumbent industries and interest groups—all for the benefit of nascent technologies and future generations that are politically weak. Carbon markets cannot provide deep policy integration across multiple economic sectors because each sector’s technological, economic, and political challenges can be so divergent that any market linkage undermines the overall market’s effectiveness. Carbon markets that were touted as ways of integrating climate policy across multiple countries around the world have instead generally failed to sustainably connect across international borders. Moreover, in integrating across jurisdictional borders, markets have all too often relied on approaches such as carbon offsets (in which an emitter pays another actor to reduce their emissions elsewhere) that can be susceptible to fraud and abuse.

Given these flaws, it’s no surprise that the authors characterize most existing carbon markets as “Potemkin” markets that appear to be functioning at reasonable costs–but in fact, most progress in decarbonization (whether it is in reducing carbon emissions or advancing innovation) is driven by regulatory instruments.

Cullenward and Victor’s analysis flows from a relatively simple political model that includes the major actors (such as interest groups) and institutions through which climate policy is established and implemented. To buttress their points, the authors draw on a series of examples, including the European Union’s Emissions Trading System.

The book provides a refreshing counterpoint to the regular invocations of markets as the solution for our climate policy dilemma. Cullenward and Victor have done a remarkable job of summarizing the existing policy literature that has increasingly undermined the case for the dominant role for markets, as well as their own contributions to that literature.

The authors do not call for completely abandoning markets, as they note, markets can be made to work as part of an overall portfolio of climate policy that also includes regulation. For instance, markets can focus on areas where smaller price signals function well. However, the authors make clear that markets will not play the leading role for much of our climate policy in the near future. Given the urgency of the task in front of us for decarbonization, knowing which policies are more effective in the here and now is tremendously important.

Cite as: Eric Biber, When the Price Isn’t Right: Why Markets Aren’t the Panacea for Climate, JOTWELL (August 8, 2022) (reviewing Danny Cullenward & David G. Victor, Making Climate Policy Work (2020)), https://lex.jotwell.com/when-the-price-isnt-right-why-markets-arent-the-panacea-for-climate/.

Taking Law’s “v.” Out of Environmental Policy Science (Again)

When Bernard Goldstein speaks about the intersection of science and law in environmental policy, people listen. Or at least they should, in light of Dr. Goldstein’s distinguished record of scholarship, public service, and advocacy at this nexus. He is now in his sixth decade of writing about protecting public health from a vast array of toxic exposures. His latest contribution to that discussion is well worth reading and reflecting upon.

Readers should not be deterred by the article’s unwieldy title, nor by the prominent mention of a well-known person who skipped Joe Biden’s inauguration. Goldstein’s article is much more than a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel critique of an expired Administration. As Goldstein points out, a future similar assault on the scientific basis for environmental policy “is far from impossible,” and “not . . . from just one side of the political spectrum.” (P. 339.) So, rather than focusing on ideological differences and policy preferences, Goldstein attempts to explain the essential nature of such attacks and to suggest potential defenses.

Goldstein’s thesis is that the “replacement of EPA’s scientific consensus processes with those most appropriate to the law” was behind the harm that former Administrators Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler did to EPA policymaking. This thought might rankle law professors, who certainly acknowledge that science provides the factual basis for environmental policy but nevertheless customarily emphasize that lawyers’ skills are essential to formulating, defending, and enforcing environmental regulations. But Goldstein does not question or denigrate the value of lawyers and legal analysis to policymaking. Rather, he argues that the first step in making environmental policy – selecting and evaluating the science to be used in the process – is served better by the norms and modes of science than by those of law.

Goldstein begins with a brief description of “pertinent distinguishing characteristics between law and science.” (P. 303.) Many judges and academics have attempted this over the last fifty or so years; Goldstein claims no novelty here. He emphasizes the contrast between advocacy and discovery as the prime motivators of lawyers and scientists, respectively. The point is well taken, though the article gives too little credit to the professional imperatives and cognitive biases that can push scientists toward advocacy, as well as to the need for credibility that can sometimes push lawyers toward truth-telling. But Goldstein qualifies his somewhat over-stark presentation, noting that “these are central tendencies rather than absolute rules.” (P. 304 n.12.) And his deep understanding of these tendencies, as a scientist who has worked on many legal and policy issues, provides insights far more useful than the platitudes that often appear in court opinions and even in some scholarly writing.

What Goldstein calls “advocacy” reflects, more than anything, the adversarial nature of the American judicial system, with the central “v.” of a case caption constructing a sharp pivot between opposing world views. Goldstein contends that on regulatory science issues, an adversarial structure – whether in a court of law or the court of public opinion – predictably generates a conceptual model of scientific opinion as bimodal, with views clustered around incompatible extremes. The typical scientific reality, he says, is different: if sufficient data exist, scientific opinion on any particular issue is likely to be normally distributed, strongly clustered around some central value that represents a consensus view.

Unsurprisingly, Goldstein the scientist believes that the goal of environmental policymaking should be to discover that scientific consensus and then to choose a regulatory standard reflecting the consensus as nearly as possible. He laments the last Administration’s displacement of this goal, achieved through a series of procedural changes, many glaringly obvious but some quite inconspicuous. The cumulative impact, Goldstein concludes, turned a process that used to be a search for scientific consensus into an attempt to justify a preferred outcome – that is, into advocacy. Goldstein’s disagreement with the outcome preferences is incidental to his concern about the procedural transformation itself.

Goldstein illustrates the depth of the transformation by describing numerous methods for seeking to determine a scientific consensus, none of which bears any resemblance to the decision-making processes of the departed Administration. He also discusses how the scientific research function fits into EPA’s organizational structure and why the appropriate procedures for assessing scientific evidence may vary with the regulatory context. Goldstein’s vast experience – which includes a stint heading EPA’s Office of Research and Development – enriches this discussion. For example, Goldstein provides a compelling scientific rationale, rather than a policy argument, for why data transparency rules appropriate for new drug approval by the FDA are not appropriate for environmental regulation by the EPA.

For legal scholars who would build on this work, Goldstein’s discussions of how scientists assemble and evaluate evidence, and how they choose their methods for doing so, are among the most intriguing passages in the article. Some, though not all, of the consensus-finding methods Goldstein explores have been adopted by governments or by non-governmental agencies. Within government, different structural choices have been made in the establishment of different agencies, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Determining which methods and structures will be most robust against future attacks is an urgent mission.

Twenty-five years ago Dan Tarlock argued “that environmental law and management should derive their primary political power and legitimacy from science, not ethics.”1 The past four years showed us both the power and limits of Tarlock’s claim. Ethics, we have seen, are insufficient to ensure good or even rational environmental policy: they are subject to too much disagreement, and they do not seem to constrain some policymakers at all. But science, we have seen, is also insufficient to ensure good or even rational environmental policy: it is too easily honored in word but not in deed. Bernard Goldstein’s exploration of how this happened sets up the challenge of figuring out how we can keep it from happening again.

Cite as: Steve Gold, Taking Law’s “v.” Out of Environmental Policy Science (Again), JOTWELL (December 16, 2021) (reviewing Bernard D. Goldstein, What the Trump Administration Taught Us About the Vulnerabilities of EPA’s Science-Based Regulatory Processes: Changing the Consensus Processes of Science into the Confrontational Processes of Law, 31 Health Matrix 299 (2021)), https://lex.jotwell.com/taking-laws-v-out-of-environmental-policy-science-again/.

We Need to Work Together: Understanding Federal Agency Collaboration

The federal government manages tens of millions of acres of land across the United States. That land includes some of the most iconic landscapes in the country – such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Everglades National Parks. It also is land that provides habitat for endangered species, ecosystems that support communities and wildlife, resources such as timber and minerals for economic development, and more. Forests on federal lands have been at the center of the wildfire crisis enveloping California and the Western United States. Given these overlapping demands and their importance, these lands are a fertile source for conflict, and much litigation and political rancor.

Yet there are other ways to resolve that conflict – engagement between various interests (“stakeholders”), and federal, state, local, and tribal governments about how to manage the lands and achieve these conflicting goals. This kind of stakeholder collaboration has received relatively little treatment in the legal literature – and Karen Bradshaw’s article is a vital contribution simply because of its efforts to cover that gap. Supported by the Administrative Conference of the United States, Professor Bradshaw undertook an impressive assessment of how a wide range of federal agencies – focusing on, but not limited to, the public lands – use collaboration among different stakeholders to help manage conflicts over public resources.

One reason stakeholder collaboration has received so little attention historically is that it does not lend itself easily to research, especially research based on statutes, regulations, and caselaw. While Professor Bradshaw identifies many statutes that mandate or authorize collaboration, they often each have their own unique processes. Many collaborations are not embodied in statutory or regulatory provisions. Understanding them is time-consuming, requiring reviewing copious agency files and attending many meetings. And understanding how they work – how they really work – requires getting the trust of participants to explain why they are part of the collaborations, what they hope to accomplish, and how they see the process working. To gain even a basic understanding of this process required all of Professor Bradshaw’s hard work on this article and the broader research project – and again, that alone warrants recognition.

The article is mostly descriptive – Professor Bradshaw attempts to create a clear and consistent definition of stakeholder collaboration, to articulate how it differs from other processes by which a federal government agency engages with other entities, and to tentatively assess its strengths and weaknesses. Again, given the wide range of possible forms and the difficulty of collecting data, these achievements alone are noteworthy.

Professor Bradshaw’s assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the tool are also very helpful. She notes that collaborations can be beneficial in terms of helping agencies gather information they might not otherwise receive, and of building political support for difficult decisions that agencies might make. She also notes real issues around equity: Because participants are not paid by the federal government for their participation, only a limited number of people have the ability and inclination to spend hours during a weekday on a regular basis talking in a conference room. Thus, many participants are necessarily representatives of larger organizations, with their participation part of their employment responsibilities. As Bradshaw notes, this will generally mean that lower socio-economic status communities and diffuse interests will be underrepresented in these processes. And even where there are established groups that could afford to participate, many will not because of suspicions of how the process will unfold – emphasizing the importance of trust in making these collaborations function.

Another issue that Professor Bradshaw notes is the uneasy fit of these collaborations with existing law and regulations. Many are specifically structured to avoid the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Professor Bradshaw quotes a government official stating that the collaboration requires bending agency regulations and policies, but that the official supports doing so.

Professor Bradshaw concludes with a thoughtful framework to help agencies assess when they might want to take advantage of stakeholder collaborations – drawing on her rich expertise from her research.

Public land management agencies are a key user of stakeholder collaboration, but as Professor Bradshaw notes, they are not the only ones who use them, and they are far from the only agencies faced with difficult, localized conflicts over government decisions. As the United States’ political system has polarized politically, these tools may be important to help manage that polarization. As Professor Bradshaw notes, they can provide important forums for stakeholders to listen to each other, and to help bridge deep disagreements. Her research can provide an important foundation for policymakers and academics to explore whether and how to draw more on the tool in a wide range of fields.

But Professor Bradshaw’s work also highlights a key limitation of the tool, and one that Congress might well want to consider if it continues to rely so heavily on it. The differential ability of stakeholders to participate in collaborations may interact in problematic ways with the willingness of agencies to bend laws and regulations to facilitate collaborations – the result may be agencies bending the law to benefit those who have more ability to participate. In some ways, this pattern may replicate age-old concerns about the capture of agencies by key interest groups. If collaborations simply replicate that outcome, then their promise will have been lost.

There is much to consider in Professor Bradshaw’s work – and much more to build from. She has already developed a companion piece on the topic, and I look forward to more writing from her on this important topic.

Cite as: Eric Biber, We Need to Work Together: Understanding Federal Agency Collaboration, JOTWELL (February 9, 2021) (reviewing Karen Bradshaw, Agency Engagement with Stakeholder Collaborations, in Wildfire Policy and Beyond, 51 Arizona St. L.J. 437 (2019)), https://lex.jotwell.com/we-need-to-work-together-understanding-federal-agency-collaboration/.

Is Resilience Resilient?

Robert L. Fischman, Letting Go of Stability: Resilience and Environmental Law, 94 Ind. L.J. 689 (2019).

All it took was a frequently lethal, highly infectious, globally distributed virus. In anxious self-protection, Homo sapiens drastically curtailed the planet-altering behaviors we call “economic activity.” The non-human parts of our ecosystems responded. Above cities, toxic and murky air cleared. Fossil fuel extraction sputtered; greenhouse gas emissions slowed. Wild animals returned to places from which they had long been exiled. Birds singing for mates vied more with each other and less with the drone of humanity. Even Earth’s own seismic rumbling sounded more distinctly against a diminished background of people’s percussive pounding.

The pandemic pause accomplished, however briefly, results that have eluded all the world’s environmental policy makers. These results reminded us just how tight the correlation is between the human economy and human environmental impact–and, by negative implication, exploded the myth that “sustainability” can be a pragmatic and achievable goal of environmental law. The Earth has shown that to sustain normal levels of human population and economic growth, ecosystems must absorb massive, deeply disruptive, perturbations. In Letting Go of Stability, Professor Robert Fischman rejects the sustainability shibboleth and thoughtfully explores the potential of resilience, rather than sustainability, to provide a conceptual anchor for environmental law in the decades ahead.

Fischman, as he acknowledges, is not the first to question the merit of sustainability or to highlight the potential of resilience as a guiding principle of environmental law. Letting Go of Stability stands firmly on the shoulders of at least two scholarly traditions in the scientific, social-scientific, legal, and environmental planning literature: the development of adaptive management techniques for natural resources and the consideration of system resilience for legal regulatory design in many policy contexts. Using an admirable mix of theory and case description, Fischman argues that the scientific study of resilience in ecosystems offers specific lessons that will help society to address the persistent “fundamental questions of environmental law.”

Why resilience? Fischman observes that environmental law, like much of law, implicitly has endorsed the goal of stability, seeking, for example, predictable and consistent production of ecosystem services. But to expect stability is unrealistic. Ecosystems, and their interactions with people that form numbingly complex “social-ecological systems,” are intrinsically and unpredictably dynamic. Hence, Fischman contends, instead of trying to maintain social-ecological systems in some desired equilibrium state, it makes more sense for law to aim to protect systems’ ability to restore a desired equilibrium in response to stress. That is, to keep systems resilient.

Fischman would, accordingly, have environmental law focus more on process and less on results. But as a goal, resilience is atypical and slippery. Resilience, after all, is a property that inheres in a system rather than an output that results from a system. And human beings (especially adherents of a certain school of legal and economic theory) just love designing systems to maximize output.

Fischman appreciates that for the most part, we value ecosystems not for what they are, but for what we get from them–whether nesting birds or irrigation water. Nevertheless, he argues, the goal of resilience should not and would not be indifferent to outputs. Process for process’s sake, Fischman emphasizes, is not nearly sufficient as a policy goal. Achieving resilience may not maximize or stabilize the production of a particular system output, but it can enhance human and environmental welfare by narrowing variability and reducing the probability of significant disruption. “The greatest challenge for resilience as an environmental law objective,” Fischman writes, “is that it will not fulfill the expectation of sustaining what we like.” (P. 718.) The solace is that “[r]esilience will promise less but deliver more of what it promises.” (P. 709, emphasis in original.)

Moreover, Fischman astutely observes that there are some types of promises that environmental law based on resilience could fulfill more easily than is possible in a legal regime focused on stable outputs. Using the example of a degraded stream in Indianapolis, Fischman describes how resilience could be used not just to achieve narrowly-conceived environmental quality objectives but to reimagine and reconfigure the entire social-ecological system of the stream and its surrounding community. Resilience need not always buttress an existing equilibrium; sometimes a resilience frame moves policy toward a change large enough to push a system into a new and better equilibrium.

Can the attribute of resilience also push environmental law itself to a new and better equilibrium? In addition to being an overarching policy objective, should resilience be a design element of environmental law as well? The final section of Letting Go of Stability ponders these “meta” questions.

Of course, our legal system as a whole is built for resilience: by Constitutional design, common-law tradition, and institutional reality, it resists change, even to a fault. So how would design for resilience inform and improve environmental law particularly? Fischman argues that the features that make real-world systems resilient are uniquely applicable to environmental law because of environmental law’s heavy emphasis on process and the polycentric nature of environmental policy puzzles. As he notes, the existing body of environmental law already incorporates some features of resilient systems, such as statutes that allow relatively large amounts of regulatory discretion and that require agencies periodically to reassess their prior decisions. Optimistically, he envisions that designing resilience into environmental law will entail “inviting new voices to the table,” thereby enhancing environmental justice and “substantially increas[ing] the constituency of Americans who recognize how they benefit from environmental law.” (P. 722.)

This article does not focus on particular policy prescriptions. But Fischman’s vision is not purely theoretical. He is clear that the shift to a resilience theory of environmental law, if properly executed, would have significant substantive implications. For example, he writes, “[b]urdens of proof in common law and administrative settings need root-to-branch reassessment in light of the resilience framework.” (P. 725.) He is certainly right about the need; let us hope that an enlightened generation of legislators, judges, and administrators seize the opportunity.

Letting Go of Stability grew out of Fischman’s inaugural lecture as the George P. Smith, II Distinguished Professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. This thought-provoking article demonstrates that the appointment was wisely made.

Cite as: Steve Gold, Is Resilience Resilient?, JOTWELL (September 30, 2020) (reviewing Robert L. Fischman, Letting Go of Stability: Resilience and Environmental Law, 94 Ind. L.J. 689 (2019)), https://lex.jotwell.com/is-resilience-resilient/.

The High Cost of Exclusionary Zoning

Robert C Ellickson, Zoning and the Cost of Housing: Evidence from Silicon Valley, Greater New Haven, and Greater Austin, available at SSRN.

An article about the cost of housing may seem a surprising choice as one of the year’s best environmental law articles. But there are good reasons for it: Housing costs in major coastal metro areas in the United States are soaring. Strong evidence suggests that the stringent of land-use regulations is a major contributor to those price increases Some commentators also consider state-level environmental review laws, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, among those stringent land-use regulations – thus implicating environmental law as a cause of the housing crisis. At the same time, transportation is one of the primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and is the largest single sector now in California. Addressing emissions from transportation requires a reduction in vehicle miles travelled by Americans, which in turn requires densification of the built landscape to facilitate walking, biking and public transit use. But densification may be difficult or impossible in the face of soaring metro housing costs and stringent land-use regulations that obstruct redevelopment.

Ellickson’s piece provides a timely contribution to both of these debates, because it provides something that has been sorely lacking in the debates over how land-use law shapes housing policy and the built form: Data on how the land-use regulatory system actually operates in practice. Up to now, most of the literature (whether economic, planning, or law) that has tackled how land-use regulation operates on the ground has been either speculative, or it has relied on surveys of developers and planners. This is in part because the local nature of land-use regulation in the United States, combined with its sometimes extreme complexity in local jurisdictions, makes data collection expensive and difficult. Surveys attempt to elide this issue by asking for perceptions or knowledge of land-use regulation by actors (planners and developers) who should know much about the topic, but they may not always accurately reflect the realities of land-use regulation on the ground. But if we want to solve the problems of housing cost and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, we need to have good data on the true nature of land-use regulation is in the United States.

Ellickson’s work is a great first step in this direction.

Ellickson painstakingly collects data on the zoning regulations for a few dozen jurisdictions in three major metro areas: Silicon Valley/San Jose, CA; Austin, TX; and New Haven, CT. Ellickson documents how all of these jurisdictions have significant limits on how much housing can be produced – in large part through the use of single-family zoning (requiring all development in a particular zone to be single-family houses) and minimum lot sizes (the minimum size of land that can be developed for a single-family house). Ellickson shows how some cities in these metro areas lock up almost all of their land through large-lot, single-family zoning, excluding multi-family housing and even relatively affordable single-family houses. These kinds of zoning regulations are antithetical to producing either affordable housing or walkable neighborhoods – they are the epitome of what is called exclusionary zoning. He uses simple summary statistics to emphasize how dramatically exclusionary much of the zoning is.

Ellickson also helpfully provides three additional elements to his data collection. First, he gives deep historical context for how each metro area has developed over time, including changes to the zoning system that he believes have been most impactful. Second, he does some nice comparisons across his metro areas, showing how the Austin, TX area does have relatively more development-friendly zoning, and how the most exclusionary metro area of all is New Haven, CT. Third, Ellickson develops some very basic measures of how stringent zoning might be – the incidence of large-lot zoning and small-lot zoning, and the amount of land available for multifamily housing. This metric is quite useful in that it allows for rapid and high-level assessments of zoning stringency across a range of suburban jurisdictions, although the metrics would be less useful for assessing central-cities, which usually have a much more complicated zoning system.

If I were to have a critique of Ellickson’s excellent piece, it is that he could engage more with the environmental law implications of his work. Ellickson is primarily descriptive rather than normative in the article, but at times he makes observations on the feasibility of development in areas such as hillsides, wetlands, or water supply districts that might be seen as understating the environmental and societal benefits of protecting those lands. For instance, Ellickson notes that large areas of the foothills of Silicon Valley have been protected as open space, though similarly hilly and steep areas have been developed in the East Bay – the Oakland and Berkeley hills. But those areas were subject to a tragic firestorm in 1991, killing 25 people and destroying thousands of homes – a major discussion today in California is whether those kinds of areas should be developed at all, given their vulnerability to increased fire risk in a world subject to climate change.

A more important connection with environmental law, however, is the implications of Ellickson’s work for efforts to densify American cities and metro areas as a response to climate change. Ellickson doesn’t touch on this, but his work highlights the deep challenges that cities and states around the country will face if they seek to decrease automobile use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. That is a real contribution of his piece (albeit unstated), and I hope he continues to do more work in this vein (the footnotes promise a follow-on piece with a more historical bent) and considers building connections to environmental law in general, and climate change in particular. And I really hope that others follow Ellickson’s lead in collecting data on land-use regulation on the ground (some of which I have been doing with collaborators). We need a lot more data in this area, given its central importance for housing, environmental law, climate change, and more.

Cite as: Eric Biber, The High Cost of Exclusionary Zoning, JOTWELL (February 26, 2020) (reviewing Robert C Ellickson, Zoning and the Cost of Housing: Evidence from Silicon Valley, Greater New Haven, and Greater Austin, available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/the-high-cost-of-exclusionary-zoning/.