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Encouraging Technological Innovation in Environmental and Energy Law

Zachary Liscow and Quentin Karpilow, Innovation Snowballing and Climate Law, 95 Wash. U. L. Rev. 385 (2017), available at SSRN.

Innovation is a critical component of environmental progress. The dramatic reductions in emissions per-mile-travelled from automobiles over the past forty years stem from major breakthroughs like the catalytic converter. Our efforts to switch from fossil-fuel-based energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will depend on many different kinds of technological innovation. The dramatic price drops in both wind and solar energy, for instance, are in significant part the result of the development of new technologies.

How can environmental law facilitate the development of new technology to address the challenges of climate change and other environmental problems? The predominant position of economists has been that legal tools that force economic actors to address the full costs of their actions, including the externalities that are the basis of many environmental problems, is the appropriate approach to spur innovation. A carbon tax (or a tradable permit system which requires polluters to purchase their permits) will create incentives for firms and individuals to come up with new technologies that will reduce environmental problems. Liscow and Karpilow’s article challenges this dominant paradigm, drawing on recent significant economics research.

Yet policymakers have stubbornly ignored this advice from economists. For instance, in the 2009 stimulus bill instead of levying a carbon tax the Obama Administration put billions of dollars into subsidies and tax credits to support research, development, and deployment of new renewable energy technologies. Is this just a case of elected officials and policymakers ignoring the wisdom of economists, or is there something more going on here?

Recent research in economics has indicated that there may be something more going on. Led by Daron Acemoglu at MIT, a number of economists have concluded that in order to advance real technological progress to address environmental problems, market-based mechanisms like carbon taxes or tradable permit systems have to be paired with other policy tools, such as subsidies for research and development. The reason is that innovation is path dependent – what we research now, and what technologies we develop now, depends in large part on what research has occurred in the past.

Zachary Liscow and Quentin Karpilow spin out the possible implications of this research (what they call “innovation snowballing”) for legal efforts to address climate change. As they make clear, the implications extend far beyond the most basic question of whether subsidies in the context of research and development are a good policy choice. As it turns out, we might reconsider a range of policy and legal questions based on this research – for instance, even if we don’t use market-based mechanisms, we might nonetheless adjust the kinds of regulatory tools we use to react to climate change. In addition, there are a number of difficult questions about what kinds of research and development we might subsidize, as well as when, and how. For instance, Liscow and Karpilow point out that we might want to focus our subsidy efforts on renewable energy technologies that are unlikely to have positive spillovers for the development of fossil-fuel technology as well. Biomass energy builds on (and can support further research in) related fossil-fuel combustion technologies, so we might not wish to provide significant support for it, as opposed to support for solar energy research, which has little or no overlap with fossil fuel technology.

Liscow and Karpilow are not the only ones who have engaged with these questions. Other scholars (both inside and outside environmental law) have explored whether market-based mechanisms are the best tool to advance technological innovation in the environmental context. Examples are David Driesen’s work and Margaret Taylor’s article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noting that cap-and-trade programs appear not to boost innovation significantly. If there is a weakness in the Liscow and Karpilow paper, it is that the authors could have engaged more with this prior research. And some of the extensions that Liscow and Karpilow address – for instance, whether innovation snowballing should lead us to think differently about government procurement programs or investment in infrastructure – could have fruitfully engaged with some of the relevant cutting edge work in environmental law, such as Sarah Light’s work on military contracting and environmental policy, or Alex Klass’s work on energy infrastructure.

But the strength of Liscow and Karpilow’s article is the depth with which they explore the follow-on questions that the original innovation snowballing research prompts. That strength makes this article well worth reading for anyone thinking about legal and policy design in the context of climate change.

Cite as: Eric Biber, Encouraging Technological Innovation in Environmental and Energy Law, JOTWELL (March 14, 2018) (reviewing Zachary Liscow and Quentin Karpilow, Innovation Snowballing and Climate Law, 95 Wash. U. L. Rev. 385 (2017), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/encouraging-technological-innovation-in-environmental-and-energy-law/.

The Real World

My very first law professor, Bob Ellickson, once said to my Torts class: “You know how law professors do empirical research? They sit in a room and think very hard.”

That was in 1984. A lot has changed since then, partly because of pioneering work by Ellickson himself.1 Since 2012, more than 500 law review articles have included the word “empirical” in their titles, and probably hundreds more – including every item in the most recent issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies – report or analyze empirical data without titular advertisement. Many of these papers feature linear regressions or other complex statistical analyses aiming to tease out relationships between variables. Yet there remains much value in research that simply but rigorously informs us of what actually happens in the real world. Understanding environmental law, like understanding the environment, begins with observing. This Jot acknowledges the contributions of two recent articles that help us see.

Karen Bradshaw’s Settling for Natural Resource Damages explores a component of environmental law practice that, she persuasively argues, has received too little scholarly attention. Regardless of whether she correctly identifies the predominance of settlement as the reason for scholars’ indifference, she is unquestionably correct to observe that claims by governmental trustee agencies for natural resource damages (NRDs) – like most civil litigation – almost always settle. But how often? For what types of claims? For how much? These are the questions Bradshaw asks.

To find answers, Bradshaw takes the simplest approach imaginable. She asks the people who know. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Bradshaw sets out to determine the number of NRD claims each federal trustee agency has settled under its particular legal authorities, the aggregate amount of damages those settlements recovered, and the distribution of recovery amounts. She acknowledges that the quality of her data is limited by the inconsistent and uncertain quality of agency responses to her information requests. Nevertheless, the data in Settling for Natural Resource Damages appear to paint a reasonably robust picture of most types of NRD settlements by federal agencies.

To her credit, Brashaw defines NRD claims broadly. She includes liability to federal land management agencies for damaging the resources they manage as well as the better-known NRD liability for hazardous substance and oil spills provided by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Oil Pollution Act (OPA, together with predecessor provisions of the Clean Water Act). As Bradshaw points out, the limited literature on NRD liability has focused almost entirely on CERCLA and OPA.

The results of Bradshaw’s inquiry, however, seem to vindicate earlier scholars’ emphasis. Federal agencies have settled more than 300 claims for damage to resources in national park units and national marine sanctuaries. These claims account for nearly half of the settlements in Bradshaw’s data set, but the reported combined value of those settlements is less than one percent of the total for all NRD settlements. The other ninety-nine percent came in settlements under CERCLA, OPA and the Clean Water Act.

Even excluding the outsize settlements of NRD claims related to the Deepwater Horizon blowout ($8.1 billion) and the Exxon Valdez grounding ($900 million), Bradshaw reports, the cumulative nominal value of federal NRD settlements under CERCLA, OPA and the Clean Water Act is nearly $1.4 billion. All that money is supposed to compensate the public for injury to, loss of, or destruction of natural resources, and is supposed to be used only to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of the resources harmed. How well have agencies’ settlement practices served the goal of obtaining appropriate levels of compensation? How successful have the federal trustees’ resource restoration efforts been? Should the tort-like NRD liability provisions of these statutes be emulated in addressing other environmental problems? How does the performance of non-federal trustees – which, as Bradshaw notes, includes some settlements that were subjected to withering criticism – compare to the performance of the federal trustees?

These are urgent questions. Settling for Natural Resource Damages makes no attempt to answer them, but invites efforts to do so. Bradshaw’s call for further research is well taken, in light of the scale of NRD settlements that she documents. That in itself is a significant contribution. In the world of NRD settlements, observing what’s going on out there is the first step in understanding what’s really going on out there.

James W. Coleman’s How Cheap Is Corporate Talk? observes a different aspect of environmental law practice. Coleman addresses the “regulator’s dilemma”: agencies must identify technically and economically feasible ways to meet statutory environmental goals, but their main source of information about technology and costs is the industry to be regulated – when the industry has obvious incentives to portray any regulation as infeasible and expensive. Coleman argues that one way to test the claims an industry makes to a regulator is by comparing them to what the industry tells its investors about the same regulatory risks – when the industry has obvious incentives to portray any potential regulation as no big deal. An industry’s “two-audience problem,” Coleman contends, can ease the regulator’s dilemma.

As Coleman acknowledges, it is hardly news that companies and trade associations facing potential environmental regulations (as well as many other actors in many contexts) talk out of both sides of their mouths depending on their audience. But Coleman strives to go beyond anecdote. He attempts a rigorous analysis to demonstrate this phenomenon in operation in a way that might be helpful to regulators, to investors, and to corporate counsel who give advice about statements made to both regulators and investors.

For his project, Coleman mines statements about a cleverly-selected instance of environmental regulation: EPA’s annual efforts to promulgate a Renewable Fuel Standard pursuant to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2017. This rulemaking and statute, which underlie the notices at gas pumps that ethanol has been blended into the fuel, suit Coleman’s purpose for several reasons. The statute’s requirement for annual revisions to the Standard generates recurrent opportunities for affected industries to state clear views about the impact of proposed and final regulations in documents that are easily paired – comments submitted to EPA during the rulemaking process and Form 10-K disclosures released to investors. The number of affected companies is small enough for thorough review of the documents yet large enough to provide results amenable to statistical analysis. Perhaps most usefully, implementation of the Standard affects different industries differently. Increasing the market share of ethanol and other biofuels threatens the profits of petroleum refiners and allies but offers growth opportunities for agricultural producers and allies. Thus Coleman could observe, by reviewing more than 10,000 pages of documents, the way industries with opposing interests depicted the effects of the same rule in statements to both regulators and investors.

How, though, can the comparison be made? Simply counting contradictions will not do, for as Coleman understands, “[m]ost actors facing a two-audience problem are smart enough to avoid direct factual contradictions.” (P. 66). Instead, Coleman codes the substance of individual statements about the Standard’s impact. Essentially, he counts the number of arguments about the standard that each company made to each of its two audiences (in regulatory comments and Forms 10-K) about how the Standard would affect the company.

Coleman found that companies with dominant interests in petroleum predicted more negative impacts of the Standard, on average, in their regulatory comments than in their Forms 10-K (2.78 versus 0.78). By contrast, companies with dominant interests in biofuels predicted more positive impacts of the Standard, on average, in their Forms 10-K than in their regulatory comments (0.58 versus 0.21). Applying two straightforward statistical techniques, Coleman implicitly tested the null hypothesis that each of the two sets of comparable discussions were drawn from a population with the same mean number of negative or positive impacts. The observed differences were statistically significant (P < .004 by either test) for the companies with petroleum interests and barely not significant (.05 < P < .055 by either test) for the companies with biofuels interests. Thus Coleman demonstrates that with respect to the Renewable Fuel Standard, “oil companies warn regulators and reassure investors.” (P. 70.)

There are methodological issues. Despite Coleman’s efforts to ensure data quality, the taxonomy of distinct predictions of negative and positive impacts of the rule, and the assignment of individual statements to codes within that taxonomy, must to some degree be subjective. And it is not clear that counting arguments is the best way to detect the “exaggeration, ambiguity and omission” that Coleman correctly describes as the hallmark of assertions by intelligent actors facing a two-audience problem. Moreover, affected interests in environmental regulatory disputes surely make many statements about potential rules, targeted to both regulators and investors, outside of officially submitted comments and formal 10-K disclosures.

These quibbles do not denigrate the work’s contribution. By choosing a consistent and limited set of documents to compare, Coleman avoids any possible allegation of cherry-picking. Counting arguments may miss differences in tone and emphasis, but is unlikely to understate the contrast between a company’s pitches to regulators and investors. Coleman’s analysis confirms, in a systematic rather than anecdotal way, our intuition that regulated industry tells different stories to different audiences to suit different ends. His findings suggest that regulators and investors should keep saltshakers handy when hearing from an industry to be affected by a pending regulatory choice – including an industry that stands to benefit. The lesson bears demonstration, even during an Administration more likely to deregulate than to regulate.

Karen Bradshaw’s Settling for Natural Resource Damages and James W. Coleman’s How Cheap Is Corporate Talk? have relatively modest goals. These papers are not burdened with grand theory or elaborate statistics. Instead, they collect and present data to describe clearly phenomena that we know exist, but that we have comprehended only vaguely. They help us see. 

  1.  E.g. Robert C. Ellickson, Of Coase and Cattle: Dispute Resolution Among Neighbors in Shasta County, 38 Stan. L. Rev. 623 (1986). []
Cite as: Steve Gold, The Real World, JOTWELL (August 18, 2017) (reviewing Karen Bradshaw, Settling for Natural Resource Damages, 40 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 211 (2016) and James W. Coleman, How Cheap Is Corporate Talk? Comparing Companies’ Comments on Regulations with Their Securities Disclosures, 40 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 48 (2016)), https://lex.jotwell.com/the-real-world/.

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), https://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)), https://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)), https://lex.jotwell.com/environmental-law-and-justice-in-the-anthropocene-era/.