The World Needs ELI at Its Creative Best
Scott Fulton - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Scott Fulton

This column is indeed my “closing statement.” Come January, I will step down from my role as president to take up residence with my wife in Rome. I will continue working with the Institute from Europe on a part-time basis, primarily supporting ELI’s international portfolio. The balance of my time will be devoted to working with the consultancy Sustainability Frameworks.

Looking back over our last six-plus years, there is much to feel good about in what we have accomplished together.

We have grown ELI’s revenue base by about 50 percent, attracting a host of new donors and funders to the Institute’s rule of law and governance work. A pandemic that we feared might break us saw instead an increase in funding and productivity.

We have turned ELI’s recruitment processes for staff and the board decisively in the direction of diversity so that ELI reflects more fully the constituencies we serve.

We added to ELI’s appeal through our Emerging Leaders Initiative and the ELI WELL (Women in Environmental Law and Leadership) program.

We have modernized ELI’s knowledge-transfer platforms, digitizing our celebrated print publications, establishing and growing ELI’s podcast and blog offerings, and adding new virtual engagement vehicles for most of our programs, dramatically enlarging the reach of ELI content.

We have established new vehicles for business engagement and leadership, from our in-house EHS dialogue series, to our award-winning China International Business Dialogue on Environmental Governance — an interface that seeks to share the learning of high-performing multinational companies’ best regulatory practices with China’s regulators, with ELI brokering the conversation.

We added important new lanes on technology, from our Innovation Lab to our GreenTech initiative, shining a light on environmentally beneficial technologies, and the law and policy conditions needed for them to accelerate.

We have made ELI’s mark in the climate arena, from our development of a model climate law for developing countries; to our publication of the ground-breaking book Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization; to our Climate Judiciary Project, which seeks to bring basic climate science education to judges, here and around the world, who are encountering climate change questions in a widening array of cases.

We have made important strides in enhancing ELI’s contributions in the environmental justice arena, led by our board’s groundbreaking “Statement on Race and Environmental Justice,” and as reflected by our new pro bono platform for connecting members of the bar with EJ communities needing legal support.

And these are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg of contributions that included growth in ELI’s leadership in advancing environmental rule of law and environmental peacebuilding around the world; expansion of natural resources work with Indigenous Peoples, particularly in the Arctic region, and through our growing Ocean Program; deepening engagements with environmental justice communities and other local communities in the Gulf region, the Mississippi River basin, and elsewhere; our continued work building the capacity of state and local governments — and so much more.

So, looking back, there are many positives. But looking forward, we see a world increasingly on fire, both metaphorically and in actuality. The ideas of effective governance and rule of law — so central to the ELI mission and identity — are being put to the match in various ways. Politics are hotter — and more toxic — than ever, chronically on the verge of combusting or imploding. The fires of racial injustice are raising questions anew about the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, exacerbated by the overlay of a pandemic that reserves its worst for the disadvantaged among us.

And the Earth itself is heating up, with the costs of a changing climate mounting in the form of extreme weather events and prolonged drought, accelerating rates of species extinction, degradation of the marine environment as sea levels rise, and wildfires that are now often burning out of control.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then surely the world needs ELI at its creative best. And to be what the world needs of it, ELI and its new leader, Jordan Diamond, will continue to need you — your support, your ideas, and your presence.

Many thanks to all of you and ELI’s remarkable staff, executive team, and board for these years of support and successful collaboration. No resting on laurels, however. There is vitally important work yet to be done.

On Why World Needs ELI's Creative Best.

Lessons From the Pandemic for the Future of Work
Scott Fulton - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Scott Fulton

During the spring of 2020, while we were in the early grip of the pandemic, I pointed in this column to a possible silver-lining. Perhaps what appeared then to be broad societal acceptance of the science around the coronavirus might leave us better able to also rally around the science on our other mega challenge — climate change.

Well, the broad consensus on pandemic science hasn’t exactly held. The prior administration downplayed the pandemic — and the science behind it — in an effort to rally the economy and stir up support for a reelection bid. Then, with the turnover at the White House and in the Senate, the politicization of pandemic science intensified, with some questioning whether a scourge that has disrupted lives everywhere and killed over four million people is actually an elaborate hoax.

But this doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from the pandemic. Our collective experience in shifting to the use of remote engagement tools, the quantum leap in the quality of those tools, and our discovery that we cannot only hold our own but in some cases increase our productivity, should mean something going forward. Indeed, if, when we reach the other side of the pandemic, we simply snap back to how things were done before, we will be missing a major opportunity to reshape our approach to work in ways that can enlarge our impact, improve quality of life, and contribute to our environmental objectives.

Let’s take ELI’s experience. We, like everyone, were quite concerned about whether our programming could survive a period of home sequestration. But we pivoted to virtual approaches, and experienced, to our amazement, dramatic bump-ups in most of our activity measures. So, for example, we saw through the use of virtual engagement tools a dramatic increase in the number of educational programs that we were able to bring forward and a near doubling of attendance at those programs. We were likewise able to increase the number of podcasts we produced and saw a near doubling in podcast listenership. Our video views also nearly doubled. Downloads of our research reports also saw a significant bump-up. These are dramatic increases in both productivity and reach.

As our staffing has not increased, the increases in productivity signal that virtual tools are making us more efficient at what we do. I’d like to think that the expanded reach reflects the ever-improving quality of our products, but there is clearly more going on than that alone. The increases in listenership, viewership, and participation also signal recovered bandwidth within our community.

There’s no doubt that for some, regular work has been down, which helped enlarge the space for engaging with ELI’s programs. But a current that cuts across organizations and sectors is the harvest of time that came from greatly limiting all forms of movement — travel, commuting, trips across town, and jaunts up and down the halls and stairs for meetings. From this collective experience, we have learned just how much time is consumed in moving about and what is possible when we put it to other use.

And of course it’s not just time that is saved — there is potential for reducing environmental impacts. There is considerably more study needed of the trade-offs between the energy demands connected to remote, distributed work, and the demands associated with office work performed in installations that are often oversized and inefficiently used.

But we do know for sure that less transportation means better local air quality and a smaller carbon footprint. It also means less traffic congestion, fewer mass-transit hassles, fewer airport and transit irritations — perhaps a net reduction in some of the more grinding aspects of modern life. This is no doubt why many surveyed employees don’t want to return to the way things were.

There are no panaceas when it comes to human systems, and an all-remote, all-the-time approach is not problem free. Inequities can emerge between those whose work is portable and those whose work is not. The cohesion of work teams can suffer. Networking and forming new relationships can take more effort. The spontaneous synergies and collective creativity that comes from inventive people being in proximity can be lost. There is also the problem of losing the physical separation between work and home and the tendency for many of us to just never stop working in the absence of such a seam. For these reasons, the work of the future will likely need to include some elements of the past. But the new normal should also carry forward with strength some of the learning and tools from this bizarre, abnormal period from which we are hoping to emerge. We can work differently — and should.

On Pandemic’s Lessons for Work Future.

ELI Report
Akielly Hu - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue

National Wetlands Awards Digitally recognizing five exemplary stewards of country’s natural history and heritage

ELI’s National Wetlands Awards are presented annually to individuals who have excelled in wetlands protection, restoration, and education. The winners are selected by a committee composed of experts from around the country, including representatives from each federal supporting agency, the conservation and business communities, and state and local governments.

What is usually a moving ceremony held on Capitol Hill was instead conducted digitally this year.

Full descriptions of each award winner are at

Award for Business Leadership. Russell J. Furnari is the manager of environmental policy enterprise for Public Service Enterprise Group and serves as chairman of the New Jersey Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership. The NJCWRP is a unique public-private collaborative focused on restoring, preserving, enhancing, and protecting aquatic habitats throughout New Jersey.

Through Russ’s leadership and commitment, the partnership has experienced extraordinary success and is considered a model for similar groups across the nation. Since its inception in 2003, NJCWRP has raised more than one million dollars in contributions and pledges of in-kind services from its corporate partners, NGOs, and academia. NJCWRP’s projects are located throughout New Jersey and have aided in the preservation of more than 724 acres and 35 stream miles.

One project, the Upper Wallkill Watershed Riparian Restoration and Floodplain Reforestation Initiative, aims to restore a degraded section of the Wallkill river while educating the next generation of students engaged in environmental protection. With the help of 200 middle and high school students, the first phase of the project resulted in the restoration of 4.5 acres of habitat and improved surface water quality. When completed, the entire project has the potential to restore more than 60 acres of vital habitat.

According to his supporters, Russ’s work building partnerships among diverse interests, identifying and successfully generating funding, and guiding projects through myriad approval processes have been critical to NJCWRP’s success. Russ exemplifies the importance of having strong support from the business community in helping to sustain and enhance wetlands and the environment for the future.

Award for Youth Leadership. Sonja Michaluk is a research scientist, writer, environmental educator, and founder of a genetics and microbiology lab. At 17 years old, Sonja has been a certified water monitor since she was six and has advocated on behalf of wetlands since she was 11.

Between 2014 and 2020, Sonja contributed to the preservation of over 50 acres of ecologically sensitive wetlands and wildlife corridors in central New Jersey. Her data also helped minimize the impacts of a natural gas pipeline. These research results, submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, as well as Sonja’s testimony to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, helped save 1,800 trees and mitigated damage to waterways.

Sonja has been honored for her work locally and internationally. She was called a “Force of Nature” by Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, served as a keynote speaker at The Alliance for Watershed Education’s River Days event, and has been praised by the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly and acknowledged by the New Jersey governor. Before the pandemic, she was flown to Sweden to represent the United States at World Water Week and at a climate change symposium. Her research has been published in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and she has presented at numerous conferences and was featured in films about climate change and the environment.

Sonja’s supporters say her familiarity with freshwater ecology and the ease with which she explains scientific concepts to others make her an effective teacher. She has been educating the public about wetlands conservation and water monitoring for over ten years.

Sonja’s current work includes a project to preserve 200 acres of threatened wetlands and old growth forest in Princeton, New Jersey, in collaboration with Ridgeview Conservancy and the Watershed Institute.

Award for Wetlands Program Development. Lauren Driscoll has been committed to wetlands conservation and restoration for more than 25 years.

Lauren has managed the wetlands program at the Washington State Department of Ecology since 2005. In her position, she advances the agency’s role in the protection of wetland resources throughout the state. This includes ensuring statewide consistency in implementation of the Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certifications for wetlands, developing and delivering technical tools and science-based guidance, and providing expert technical assistance to local wetland regulators. Lauren also mentors wetland technical staff across the state and secures grants for wetlands program activities.

Lauren’s expertise in wetland policy and mitigation has substantially strengthened the state’s work in these areas. She played a major role in establishing the state’s wetland bank certification program, and continues to provide oversight for Washington’s wetlands compliance and wetland banking programs.

Lauren’s work often serves as a model for other programs across the country. For example, she oversaw the development of Washington’s first EPA-approved Wetland Program Plan, a six-year strategy that formalizes program development and provides a longer-term vision for the state’s wetland management. Washington’s approach to the plan inspired several other states. Similarly, Lauren worked with the state’s interagency Voluntary Stewardship Program committee to create a coordinated and comprehensive statewide stewardship approach that serves as a national model.

Lauren has worked tirelessly to not only strengthen wetlands protection in her own state but also to actively engage in national planning and decision-making. These efforts include coordinating the state’s response to several federal rulemakings, such as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

Lauren’s supporters describe her as a skilled communicator who can bridge the gap between policymakers and scientists, and engage with an often diverse and divisive state legislature. Through her outstanding communication and leadership, Lauren has managed to keep the wetlands program intact by demonstrating its importance even during lean economic times.

Her dedication and expertise have earned her the respect of colleagues across the country.

Award for Local Stewardship. Wenley Ferguson has spent the last 31 years working for Save The Bay, an environmental nonprofit organization in Providence, Rhode Island, where she now serves as director of habitat restoration.

Throughout her career, Wenley has partnered with federal, state, and local entities to advance projects that restore and enhance coastal and estuarine habitats and improve community resilience, working tirelessly to bring projects from conception to implementation and adaptive management.

Wenley is a leader in identifying and assessing climate change impacts to coastal wetlands within Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. She is also an expert in advancing new and emerging restoration and management approaches in the southern New England region.

Wenley and her Save The Bay colleagues were the first to identify the drowning of otherwise healthy coastal marshes in Rhode Island due to sea level rise. Using a monitoring and assessment program developed by Save The Bay and state partners, two of these marshes were identified as especially vulnerable to accelerated rising waters. Wenley worked tirelessly with local, state, and federal partners to restore the drowning marshes and build their resiliency to climate change.

As a leader in her organization and community, Wenley is involved in all facets of coastal restoration projects. She is consistently on the ground assessing project success, adaptively managing projects, developing community engagement and outreach strategies, and supporting student researchers. Active in local education, Wenley has also led volunteer teams to engage local communities and advocates about the importance of conserving marsh migration corridors. She collaborates with local researchers and has contributed to several peer-reviewed publications related to coastal marsh conditions and restoration.

Award for Promoting Awareness. Xavier Cortada is an artist and professor of practice in the University of Miami’s Department of Art and Art History. For 15 years, Xavier has creatively harnessed the power of art to motivate fellow Miami-Dade County residents to learn about, conserve, and restore mangrove wetlands.

Xavier’s highly innovative eco-art projects include a volunteering project that encouraged neighbors to build up climate change resiliency by growing salt-tolerant mangroves in their yards. He also created the nation’s first underwater homeowner’s association to address the threat of rising seas and saltwater intrusion into a community’s freshwater aquifer.

One of Xavier’s most notable eco-art initiatives is the Reclamation Project, which aimed to engage “eco-emissaries” in rebuilding ecosystems above and below the waterline. Volunteers installed meticulously arranged grids of mangrove propagules in water-filled cups in the street-facing windows of local restaurants and shops. Passersby, intrigued by the displays, often asked for more information or read the accompanying information about mangroves. When the propagules matured, volunteers replanted them in a community ritual reclaiming the water’s edge for nature.

Xavier repeated the project annually for six years, reaching roughly 200,000 people. To date, the project has engaged over 10,000 volunteer participants, helping to restore 25 acres of coastal habitat.

After 2012, the Miami-Dade County community assumed responsibility for the project. It continues today through volunteers at the Frost Science Museum, in public schools county-wide, and in communities across Florida and beyond who have emulated Xavier’s project.

Newest Winners of ELI’S National Wetlands Awards.

A Rising Tide Sinks All Boats
Sea-Level Increase, and What to Do About It
G. Tracy Mehan III - American Water Works Association
American Water Works Association
Current Issue

Climate policy focused on federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is a hard sell in the United States. From the defeat of the Kyoto Protocol in the Senate 95-0 in 1997, to the failure of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in a Democratic Congress in 2009, up to and including President Trump’s spiking of the Clean Power Plan and reducing vehicle fuel economy improvements and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, that dog just won’t hunt.

Meanwhile the shale and natural gas revolutions have reduced emissions significantly. States, cities, and many corporations are pursuing their own GHG reduction goals in a civil society movement envisioned by Vanderbilt’s Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan in their thoughtful, hopeful book, Beyond Politics. The Private Governance Response to Climate Changepreviously reviewed here (See May/June 2018). But as noted at the end of that review, “Yet, nowhere in the dozen or so pages of the book’s index will the reader find any references to either adaptation or resilience in the face of climate change. . . . Society, however, may be forced to consider other options given the stark political and economic realities of climate policy.”

Is there common ground left in America to address the impacts of a variable climate; demographic shifts to coastal zones (doubling by 2060); massive, costly storms, hurricanes, flooding, erosion; and, if you comprehend the arcane art of modeling, rising sea levels that will render storms even more destructive, extend flood zones and move the coastline further inland due to massive inundation?

To put it another way, could there arise a working coalition that, without arguing over what the Chinese or Indians are or are not doing, what or who is causing climate change, or how the federal government might commandeer the nation’s entire energy sector, still coalesces around adaptation to real-world effects? Let the debate over mitigation continue, but why not focus on ameliorating problems on the ground or in the water, and support specific, attainable goals of adaptation and resilience?

In another context the idea of “making space for the river” — protecting floodplains and giving the river room to expand in rain storms — has been embraced by the Dutch, originally, and now the Army Corps of Engineers with none of the pitched battles over mitigation of GHGs (See The Dutch Are Much,” September/October 2013). Not long ago this sort of thing was referred to as a “no regrets” approach to climate change — implement policies with inherent value, in and of themselves, that adapt to a changing climate but may, or may not, mitigate it. Water and energy efficiency, robust forest management and reforestation and green stormwater infrastructure are examples of the concept. A supply-side economist might include a carbon tax if offset by reduced marginal income tax rates on income and productivity.

The time to tackle issues relating to coastal storms, hurricanes, flood-ing, sea-level rise and erosion, resulting in untold human misery and economic costs, is ripe for a no regrets alliance of businesses, environmentalists, state and local governments, and not to mention property owners. Recall that in Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans saw the deaths of 986 of its residents, displacement of over a million people in the region, and a reduction of population to 76 percent of what it was in 2000. It also cost $150 billion in total damages if you include Hurricane Rita.

But we have not seen the worst of it, argues Jeffrey Peterson in A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas, published by Island Press. In this encyclopedic but highly readable book, he describes the calamitous effects of rising sea levels, which have hardly been factored into the governmental planning calculations of most oceanfront communities in the United States except for a few major cities, and have been largely ignored by their citizens as well.

“There really is no way to sugar coat the news about sea-level rise — it is almost all bad,” writes Peterson. In a magisterial review of all the re-search, models, calculations, and projections made by NOAA, FEMA, EPA, USGS, and the Army Corps of Engineers, he concludes, “Scientific consensus about the extent of future global sea-level rise is steadily trending upward.” Further, “The commonly reported increases in the height of sea level (e.g., three feet by the year 2100) are not the total increase expected, but simply the first increment of a larger rise that will occur in the decades and centuries after 2100.”

Peterson is a passionate advocate for doing more to mitigate GHGs through efforts like the Paris Agreement as he makes clear throughout this well-researched book. But any reader concerned about the increasing challenges of coastal destruction, the financial disaster which is the National Flood Insurance Program, or the protection of priceless lives, ecosystems, and the national economy will have no regrets reading A New Coast, a most impressive treatment of all topics relating to managing the risks to the ocean shores of America’s coastal states.

The author guides the reader through a meticulous survey of coastal law, policy, politics, programs, science, and economics, as well as the relative merits of different modes of adaptation and resilience. The detail would be overwhelming but for the architecture of his four-pillar case for a federally led national planning effort to reimagine the coastline, save NFIP and inundated property owners from precipitous financial ruin, protect low-income citizens and maintain a dynamic, but resilient ecosystem: The science points to “a real problem for the coast”; the “scale of the impacts, and the importance of assets at risk” is clear, including communal, economic, and environmental ones; the “existing, related programs are not a good fit for the job,” either nationally or at the state and local levels, among them flood insurance, disaster recovery, coastal management, and adaptation; and to prepare for more severe storms and rising seas, a national program “can best deliver the expanded technical support and resources that state and local governments need to meet this challenge.” The nation needs “a national frame of reference.”

Around these four pillars Peterson assembles a plethora of data, anal-yses and proposals to implement his grand vision, one more reminiscent of the 1970s than the 2000s. He takes on all the tough issues. These include the need to bifurcate the inland portion of the NFIP, which is sustainable, from the coastal part, which is hemorrhaging money, and begin to phase out the latter over 30 years. He suggests moving away from costly, temporary structural techniques like seawalls and beach nourishment and calls for complete, accurate mapping of all coastal areas subject, not just to flooding, but also sea-level rise decades ahead. He proposes unmuting price signals to ensure that businesses and property owners understand the true cost of living in harm’s way by requiring realtors and businesses to disclose the true risks of coastal development. He sees relocating and financially protecting coastal residents through an ingenious Coastal Property Price Stabilization Fund allowing them to sell to said fund but stay in their home up to the point of inundation. Finally, he argues for a robust federal investment on the basis of a macro-level benefit-cost analysis that justifies spending $9.5-14.5 billion annually.

On the benefits to be derived from these staggering figures, Peterson writes: “Benefits can be measured in monetary terms, both as property losses avoided and federal disaster and flood insurance spending minimized. Remember the average property loss from a major storm is over $20 billion, that the largest storms can carry losses of over $100 billion, and that the three storms of 2017 generated losses of $265 billion.”

Peterson notes, “Federal supplemental appropriations to recover from the 2017 storms came to $120 billion, and individual major storms have cost tens of billions of dollars.” Moreover, “the Congressional Budget Office estimates future annual property losses of $54 billion and federal government costs of $17 billion annually assuming just existing conditions.” Over and above the money, a proactive policy anticipating sea-level rise would “save lives, sustain coastal ecosystems and protect coastal economies.” Thousands of lives, trillions of dollars saved.

A national planning effort needs to convince Americans to believe in the models predicting sea-level rise over many, many decades. But time will tell, and reality will, if Peterson is right, unmute all price signals and concentrate the minds of coastal residents.

One might, however, argue that he is putting too large a wager on a federally led process, given the current distrust of Washington. Trust, in this polarized age, must be cultivated bottom up and top down. The Pew Research Center reports that “Three-quarters of Americans say that their fellow citizens’ trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64 percent believe that about peoples’ trust in each other.” Only 46 percent view climate change as a top-tier problem.

So a collaborative approach to coastal policy, with ample education and mutual learning, between public and private sectors, will be a neces-sary condition to overcoming the distrust and the challenges both of government failure or neglect, and that of asymmetrical information, one of the classic causes of market failure.

On Why Rising Tides Sink All Boats.

Employing a Broader Policy Toolkit to Mitigate Climate Change Risks
Joseph E. Aldy - Harvard Kennedy School
Harvard Kennedy School
Current Issue
Joseph E. Aldy

For three decades, advocates for climate change policy have simultaneously emphasized the urgent need to take ambitious actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while providing false reassurances of the feasibility of doing so. This policy prescription has relied almost exclusively on a single tool: reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide and other GHGs. We are discovering, however, that this exclusive approach is not sufficient to combat climate change’s deadly effects.

Furthermore, mitigation of GHG emissions has a poor track record. Atmospheric concentrations are up by more than 40 percent above baseline, and since mitigation efforts began around 1990 global CO2 emissions have increased 60 percent and temperatures have increased at an accelerating rate. The coordinated efforts among nations of the world have fallen way short.

Looking to the future, our prospects are no better. The 2015 Paris Agreement called for a limit to global warming of “well below” 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. Pursuing such a goal through emissions mitigation alone would likely require global CO2 emissions from the energy system to be net negative over the second half of this century. Given the technological challenges, the economic costs, and the lack of political will, the odds of achieving the necessary transformation are bleak. In short, the one-prong strategy of emissions mitigation has not worked to control climate change risks.

In our recent paper “Three Prongs for a Prudent Climate Policy,” Richard Zeckhauser and I evaluate a broader policy portfolio to combat climate change. In particular, we explore adding amelioration — through solar radiation management, or SRM — and adaptation to the emissions mitigation approach to climate change policy.

Each of the three prongs targets a different dimension of climate change risks. Mitigation reduces the flow of emissions to the atmosphere, SRM offsets some of the warming associated with the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, and adaptation reduces damages for a given amount of warming. Expanding policy toolkits in this way would strengthen global efforts to reduce climate change risks, and do so at far lower cost than the one-prong, approach that is the status quo.

The potential of SRM interventions, such as through the injection of small particles into the upper atmosphere to offset some human-caused global warming, is evident from natural experiments. For example, past volcanic eruptions sent substantial quantities of particles into the atmosphere and temporarily cooled the Earth by a significant amount.

The financial costs of SRM would be modest, too. Indeed, the direct costs of implementing SRM are orders of magnitude lower than those of emissions mitigation and adaptation. They are dramatically lower than the harms the world will bear over generations to come as the planet continues to warm. The prospect of indirect costs, such as unintended adverse consequences from SRM, need to be weighed fully and merit serious research. However, the risks of foregoing SRM appear greater than the risks of pursuing it.

Some environmental advocates are deeply concerned that employing SRM — or even considering it — would create a form of moral hazard by potentially reducing incentives to cut CO2 emissions. Several economic analyses have shown that implementing SRM could reduce the magnitude of emission abatement necessary to limit global warming. And SRM is an imperfect substitute, since it does not address the adverse effects of ocean acidification resulting from higher atmospheric concentrations.

This potential moral hazard concern, however, pales in comparison to the free-riding incentive that has plagued emission mitigation efforts since the 1992 Earth Summit. As the costs of reducing emissions are local but the benefits are global, individuals, businesses, and governments have an incentive to defer to others to undertake cuts.

Moreover, in contrast to the moral hazard reservation, we observe that SRM deployment might serve as an “awful action alert” that galvanizes more ambitious emissions mitigation. The prospect that governments would begin daily injections of particles into the upper atmosphere to combat climate change could make the need to cut emissions and change the way the world produces and consumes energy all the more salient to the public.

Pursuing each of these prongs would increase the likelihood of avoiding catastrophic climate change impacts and doing so would impose lower costs than a mitigation-only approach. We should also stress that massive uncertainties accompany each of the three policy prongs, their interplay, and the consequences of a warming planet. An effective policy will require us to optimize decisionmaking under uncertainty. We will learn as we go, and now is the time to go.

Employing a Broader Policy Toolkit to Mitigate Climate Change Risks.

Paying the Price
Michael Curley - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Paying the Price

Almost 7,600 years go, just north of what is now Turkey, lay an enormous valley with a large beautiful lake in the center. Since this valley was very welcoming, thousands of people lived and practiced their fishing and primitive farming along the shoreline. The Lake People benefited from the receding glaciers that still covered most of upper Europe during the end of the last Ice Age. The fresh flow from the north made the waters of the Lake People and their surrounding fields highly productive.

The melting of the ice sheets across Europe as well as Asia, Greenland, and North America meant another thing: the levels of the world’s oceans were rising. As the sea climbed, the water rose up what was then a valley between Greece and Turkey not far from where the Lake People were. Flowing from the rising Mediterranean, fed by the burgeoning Atlantic, first it inundated what is now the Dardanelles Straits. Then, as the water climbed a little further, it flooded a basin that today we call the Sea of Marmara. Relentlessly the water kept climbing until it reached a crest. On the other side was our valley with its bountiful lake and thousands of productive farmers and fishers.

History tells us that when the waters of the Mediterranean were only a few feet deep along the crest, shepherds used to cross their cows there. The words for “cattle crossing” in ancient Greek are bous-poros. Today we call this place the Bosporus. The shepherds can’t cross their cattle there any more: the straits are now under 200 feet of seawater. Indeed, during the time of the Lake People, the rising water of the Mediterranean began to spill over the crest. Once the flood reached a critical level, the earthen rim caved and the water became a torrent. The water in the lake rose at a rate of one foot per hour. For the Lake People, there was no escape. They all perished.

That was the last history heard from the Lake People until the late 1980s, when two American oceanographers teamed up with counterparts from Russia, Bulgaria, and Turkey to map the floor of the Black Sea. To their shock, instead of merely finding the usual subsea mountains, valleys, and sediments, they found ruins of cities that had flourished almost eight millennia ago and are now buried under thousands of feet of water. What had been “a Garden of Eden for an advanced culture in a vast region of semidesert, became a sea of death,” in the American oceanographers’ recounting. They postulated that the story of the Lake People became the history of the Flood in the Book of Genesis.

This article was going to be about how much money climate change policies could cost our society. Or how many dollars we’d have to pay to mitigate some of the effects of global warming like coastal flooding or the desiccation of vast swaths of farmland. In other words, since the word paying is in the title, the story was going to be about cash. Then reality began to set in. There are definitely huge dollar costs associated with global warming: mitigation and adaptation plus of course damages. And there needs to be serious discussion about how best to pay for all this.

But we need to begin with the real meaning of paying for global warming. The Lake People paid the price of climate change, not just with their lives but their very society was lost — wiped off the face of the Earth in less than a day. Indeed, for millions perhaps billions of people the highest price of climate change will be in untold suffering and, for countless numbers, death and cultural dissolution as nations are swallowed by rising seas and encroaching deserts.

Today, the Earth is even warmer than during the time of the Lake People, and large swaths of the world population face sea-level rise as well as temperatures that could soon prove deadly to humans directly and indirectly through a breakdown of agriculture and associated economic systems. Each new study levers upward the speed of rising oceans and the Earth’s temperature, which already are threatening the inhabitability and the economy of entire regions — not just remote islands but many large cities and even some nations. Think of the cost to relocate these people. Think of the suffering that mass migrations and loss will entail.

We need to develop climate change mitigation strategies to minimize this trend. Such policies will cost a lot of money. There will probably not be another event as dramatic and dynamic as the rapid flooding of the Lake People’s valley — the effects of global warming usually accrue slowly. But they are relentless, and faster than we imagined even a few years ago. And there will be many people who will pay the price of climate change. Some will pay with their lives. Many of the rest will pay with the loss of their homes and their livelihoods. Much needs to be done: we have become a carbon-dependent species. We must make our lives and our economy much less destructive of our fragile planet.

Everybody will pay something. How we organize those payments equitably and efficiently may be the most important story in 21st century politics going forward.

Climate change literature is replete with stories about rising sea levels and their effect on different people. One of the most celebrated tales is actually a legal case that was filed on behalf of the people living on tiny Kivalina Island off the northwestern coast of Alaska in what the state calls the Northwest Arctic Borough. The island was first described by outsiders in 1847, by a lieutenant in the Imperial Russian Navy. Kivalina has a total land area of 1.5 square miles and shrinking. Today it is home to about 374 of the Inupiat people, who are Native Alaskans. Its story has since become illustrative of humanity’s future.

Kivalina Island is very low. And so, feeling themselves in peril and put upon by giant corporations that profit from carbon, the residents filed suit against Exxon Corporation, eight smaller oil companies, 14 power companies, and one coal company. The lawsuit is referred to as Kivalina v. Exxon. The Inupiat sought damages from the oil giant and other firms for the loss of their home island, which they feel will soon be covered by the Chukchi Sea. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of relocating the inhabitants. The Corps’ number is $95-125 million. The GAO figures $100-400 million. So relocation would cost as much as $275,000 to even $1,150,000 per person, bracketing these two studies.

The Kivalina suit was filed in 2008 in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. It was dismissed a year and a half later, with the court essentially saying that climate change is a political problem. The Congress and the president should handle it, not the courts, according to the district judge. Sadly, this president and the current Congress have shown little interest in wrestling with climate change, leaving the expenses involved to be paid by those directly affected. In the United States, that means people like the Inupiat or coastal residents along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico or the Low Country along the Atlantic seaboard. And by the end of the century, it could include residents of major coastal cities the world around.

Having filed a major federal lawsuit, it’s pretty clear that the Inupiat are not a helpless people lacking resources. But they probably don’t have the kind of money that the Corps and the GAO say it would take to deal with the rising-sea-level problem. That situation of high risk exposure and total costs compared to limited financial means for mitigation will play out for hundreds of millions of people living on coast lines who will need to relocate. Desertification will also create environmental refugees by the millions. Thus, for many people, it’s not just a matter of mitigation and additional air conditioning; they face having their entire societies wiped out. It is the story of the Lake People, but with a longer timeframe and perhaps billions of people. Unfortunately, that timeframe has already started.

Islands are today’s front lines. There are hundreds of these small landmasses across the planet that are in danger of sinking into rising seas. Many of the people that live there probably don’t have the resources to protect themselves. Among these lands are the Maldives off the coast of Argentina in the South Atlantic, home to some three hundred thousand people. Another is the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls in the middle of the Pacific. The highest elevation on the Marshalls is only six feet above sea level. The Marshalls will be underwater by the end of this century, uninhabitable much sooner. Others like the nine tiny islands that make up Tuvalu are also low-lying and in danger of winding up below sea level. Nauru, located in mid ocean, has the distinction of being the third smallest country on the planet after Monaco and the Vatican. Rising sea levels are making it rapidly smaller — they are a life and death matter to the island nation. Using the Corps’ low number of $275,000 per person for relocation, it would cost about $3.2 billion to move the more than 11,000 people off Nauru. Using the GAO’s high number the cost would be about $13 billion. And so on for the hundreds of other islands whose inhabitants also will need to be resettled.

Where are these billions of dollars going to come from? Doubtless these island peoples don’t have the resources themselves. The United Nations would undoubtedly have to step in. They would pass the hat to their member states. Unless the United States had an administration of climate change deniers at the time, it would probably make a substantial contribution. The U.S. taxpayer will therefore be paying some of the price of climate change. And not only the taxpayer — some Americans face relocation too, like much of Florida’s population.

Indeed there are those who live in multi-million-dollar homes in Miami Beach already facing encroaching seas; they can afford to relocate. But up the road and across the state lies the Florida panhandle, where incomes are much lower. This area and most of the Gulf Coast to the west, an arc including lower Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and northeast Texas, are populated by modest homes and small businesses. To these people, the threat of climate change is not so much incremental sea-level rise — although that is a concern — but, rather, extreme weather events from the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the small homes in the panhandle were flattened by Hurricane Michael in 2018, which was the strongest storm ever to strike there. Michael caused an estimated $25.1 billion of damage and resulted in 72 deaths in both the United States and the Caribbean.

The Gulf Coast isn’t alone. All along the Eastern Seaboard there are local areas with patches of multimillion dollar homes like Miami Beach but much larger patches with very modest homes, like the lowlands of the Carolinas, the shores of Chesapeake Bay, and the outwash plain of southern New Jersey. The wealthy can take care of themselves. The more modest will have to deal with the vicissitudes of the insurance industry or abandon their properties and move away from storm surge and what are now being called “nuisance” high tides that occur under ordinary conditions.

In addition to private property, there is public property that is in harm’s way as well. The taxpayer is on the hook for that. In the United States, first and foremost of these threatened facilities is the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia. Probably the costs of relocation or fortification against encroaching seas will be in the range of tens of billions of dollars. When Hurricane Michael hit Florida, the bill included an estimated $6 billion just to damaged fighter jets at Tyndall Air Force Base that apparently couldn’t get out of the way. And if the suffering on the American shoreline isn’t enough, think of the 163 million people in Bangladesh, most of whom live at or near sea level, and who deal every year with monsoons which will only become more frequent and more severe as the Earth warms.

Another result of global warming will be the desiccation of productive farmland. Much of this will happen in sub-Saharan Africa, where desertification is already underway. But much will also happen in the heartland of the United States. Think of vast swaths of the Midwest unable to farm for lack of water that has dried up thanks to global warming. Think of the effects on commerce for the entire region as the Mississippi River dries up, as it has briefly already. Farmland the world over will similarly be stressed as will riparian watersheds.

One might wonder what the response could be to an unrolling global catastrophe of floods, storms, and drying fields. Such a response will need to be bigger than anything humanity has heretofore attempted. Let’s give some scale. A few years ago, there was an idea on the international agenda called the Red Sea-Dead Sea Project. This was a proposal to transport two billion gallons of water a year from the Red Sea 150 miles north to the inland Dead Sea, a saltwater lake which will otherwise completely evaporate by mid-century. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth — 420 meters below sea level, the level of the Red Sea. That means engineers could create billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity by capturing the energy of the flowing water. Plenty of power to sell to help finance the project and for other energy needs. Excess power from the project could be used for running desalination plants to counter the lessened precipitation caused by climate change. The price tag on the Red Sea–Dead Sea Project is $10 billion. But that is a one-off solution — the planet doesn’t have enough land significantly below sea level to power turbines and generate electricity to counter the effects on agriculture and municipal water supplies of failing precipitation patterns due to global warming.

Now, think of moving maybe ten times this amount of seawater ten times further, to keep America’s bread basket in production — wheat and corn that feed the United States and many other countries. In this case, the water will have to go uphill, which presents a double whammy. It will cost billions of dollars annually to pump the water north and there will be no free electricity to desalinate the water. So, the U.S. project to re-water the Midwest might cost over 10 times the Red Sea–Dead Sea Project without a penny of electricity or desalinated water sales to offset the cost. The people of the Midwest will pay the price of climate change, and the bill will be a substantial one. Their farmsteads will be hotter and drier, the two banes of the agricultural economy. They will pay either by having their society uprooted or transformed through the huge cost of irrigation using desalinated seawater instead of failing rainfall.

Whatever we need to pay for — whether the resettlement of the Kivalina people in Alaska or the rehydration of Midwest farms — we need to do so in the most cost-effective and painless way possible. The way to do this is to create special funds. Not just any funds, but rather funds with certain specific characteristics. These funds can be created by government agencies. The money in these funds could come from fees, charges, or taxes that are imposed by that government. The funds themselves should have several very important design features.

First of all, they should plainly say what the money is going to be used for. Maryland has a statewide Bay Restoration Fund, where the money comes from the Bay Restoration Fee (actually a tax). Everyone in Maryland is familiar with the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary. So, a Bay Restoration Fee makes perfect sense to them. They may not like paying it, but they certainly understand why they are doing so.

The second important characteristic is that the tax, fee, or charge be as broad based as possible. Everyone pollutes. Everyone enjoys the benefits of clean water. So, everyone should pay. It’s not just factories and not just farms; it’s all of us. So charges or taxes — whatever we call them — should be payable by as many individuals, businesses, and organizations as possible.

The third important characteristic is that the fee should be reasonable. It should not be painful for the public to pay. There are almost no regional funds in the United States, but the ones that do exist offer valuable lessons. In 2005, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, started a program to protect the Upper Neuse River watershed. The city funded the program initially with a budget allocation of $500,000 a year. Six years later the city created a “watershed protection fee” which it charged to the customers of the water utility. The fee cost the average homeowner about 40 cents a month, which is unobjectionable and brings in about $1.8 million per year to the city treasury to be used on the Upper Neuse.

The city of Durham, North Carolina, also created its own fund, also based on water bills. But Durham charged considerably more than Raleigh. Assuming Durham folks use the same amount of water as do Raleigh people, then this fee would amount to about $6 a month. Again, not a budget buster, and the tax is uncontroversial but effective. Maryland’s famous Bay Restoration Fee (which everyone but the politicians calls the “Flush Tax”) started out at $2.50 per month per single-family home in 2004. In 2012, it was doubled — without even a whimper from the people who pay it. It may not be popular but it is unobjectionable and people support it because they support the bay.

The fourth important characteristic is that the money should not be piddled away. This might sound silly at first glance, but it isn’t. How the money is used can affect its impact dramatically — by more than an order of magnitude. It’s called leverage: The money collected each year should be used not directly on mitigation projects but instead to pay debt service on bonds or other debt incurred to fund large-scale, impactful projects that can be, and need to be, done immediately, not over the course of decades as funding becomes available through taxes or fees. The managers of these funds should determine which emissions-control or mitigation projects are critical and need to be undertaken today, not in 2050. The $1.8 million that Raleigh collects through its special tax could support about $30 million of bonds issued to fund pollution control projects.

In addition to getting critical projects done now and quickly, there is also the economic argument that money loses value over time because of inflation. And inflation is very real. If something costs $1 today, using a 3 percent annual inflation rate, you will need $2.42 to pay for it in 2047. Get that project done today — issue a bond and then use the annual fees to pay the debt service.

The fifth and final important characteristic of environmental charges is to make the uses or purposes of the funds as broad as possible. They should be used to reduce any kind of water pollution. Not just agricultural runoff. Not just effluent from sewage treatment plants or from factories. Not just stormwater. What you see as a major problem today might need help from another area tomorrow. For example, stormwater problems might easily be exacerbated by agricultural runoff from upstream. You need to have funds that are versatile and, in this case, can attack both sources.

So, the real price of climate change will be a combination requiring different payment methods. For millions if not billions, they will face a slow-motion fate like that of the Lake People. The people on Nauru and much of the rest of Oceana, the people in Bangladesh, the Florida panhandle, people in other low-lying areas, coastal megacities like New York and Shanghai, and in regions that will suffer withering heat or monster storms, it will mean their societies will get wiped out as they flee uninhabitable lands. Future anthropologists will ponder the buried ruins of their civilizations. The economic price and human misery will be incalculable — not just cost estimates to relocate for those who can afford it but untold suffering. These are the people who will really and truly pay the price of climate change.

But for all of us, climate change will mean real money. Money to help the dispossessed of homes and livelihoods. More money needed to pay for policies to retard global warming and for projects to mitigate and adapt to its effects. Money to make our society resilient and sustainable. To transform our economy in many ways — not just energy but agriculture and the design of our homes, schools, and workplaces, and especially transportation.

It is one thing to develop policies to deal with these issues. It is another thing entirely to develop policies to pay for them. That is what needs doing now, before it’s too late. To address these dollars-and-cents effects of climate change, we need to put strong fiscal policies in place — right now — that will be the most cost effective and least painful way to deal with this seemingly inevitable and impending disaster.

Like the Lake People, millions will pay the price of climate change with their lives and livelihoods. The rest of us will pay in cash; and if we don’t put sound environmental finance policies in place, we will pay a lot more than we need to. TEF

CENTERPIECE Climate change will present humanity with a large bill that it must satisfy in order to survive. Yet it is important to remember that the costs are not just financial, not just addressable via creative funding. Suffering on an untold scale will be incalculable.

Practice in Era of Sustainability and Private Environmental Governance
Sally R. K. Fisk - Pfizer Inc.
Pfizer Inc.
Current Issue
Sally R. K. Fisk

Viewed from Earth Day 2020, there has been a profound expansion in how environmental law is practiced in the private sector. Indeed, business has never felt more central to the global response to society’s biggest challenges. And lawyers and other professionals are increasingly essential in implementing sustainability strategies, assessing the management of ESG (environment, social, governance) risk and disclosure, and working with clients to develop markets for environmentally preferable products.

While some governments are scaling back environmental protection, corporations, banks, and other private institutions are entering center stage — with the financial resources, scale, and transboundary impact that could potentially surmount society’s most challenging issues, with pressure and support from their stakeholders. Firms are also seeing business value not only in reduced operating expenses, but of reward in the marketplace.

This year, Pfizer is advancing development of our next-generation sustainability strategy, incorporating climate action and sustainable science to reduce our environmental footprint. These topics are core to our purpose to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, yet they are unregulated by most gov­ernments. As we set goals, Pfizer’s environmental professionals and lawyers will need to develop implementation frameworks which may include contract terms with suppliers, governance standards for performance, third-party verification, and disclosure to attest to our progress with customers and investors.

In today’s evolving landscape, lawyers have the responsibility to counsel clients on how to comply with the new rules of ESG. These are the rules set by stakeholders — customers, investors, employees, NGOs, and the public — for how a company should operate in this space. There is no Administrative Procedure Act to follow, no case law, no legislative record to consult, no threat of enforcement to drive compliance. We have, instead, public examples of successes and failures reminding us that the legal license to operate can be dwarfed by loss of a company’s social license to operate, and that corporate reputation is critical to business value.

As environmental lawyers navigate the evolving law of sustainability, there are two concepts that can serve as guideposts.

The first is private environmental governance. PEG occurs “when private organizations perform environmental protection functions traditionally assigned to government,” as stated by Michael P. Vandenbergh and Ben Raker in Natural Resources & Environment Journal. PEG, private advocacy, and private administrative law manifests in third-party certifications, disclosures, and self regulation. The authors explain that while powerful in effecting change, there are vulnerabilities in PEG, including antitrust concerns, charges of greenwashing, and potential stifling of more ambitious government action.

As the onus for setting standards is placed on the private sector, conflict can develop between business priorities and the cost to implement environmental protections. This disjunction means a potential ethical consideration for lawyers who counsel corporate clients in sustainability matters that can impact public health or the environment. This highlights the importance of independent scientific and technical expertise as a neutral benchmark for establishing sound systems of PEG.

The second concept is where companies take an active role in shaping markets. “The era of corporations integrating sustainable practices is being surpassed by a new age of corporations actively transforming the market to make it more sustainable,” according to Andrew Hoffman in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. This is an ambitious new phase for businesses, and there is promise that the old form of capitalism and disinterested markets is shifting.

As corporate sustainability evolves, lawyers and other professionals will have an increasing role in advising their clients on market opportunities, risks, external expectations, and disclosure imperatives, making the case that increased efforts to protect the environment and address public health can be aligned with business purpose. Indeed, being proactive will protect firms not only from the threat of government enforcement, but from the more difficult to predict loss of reputation, investor confidence, and market share.

It is an exciting time to be counseling companies because of the opportunities to help embed sustainability into business strategies in a manner that has the potential to shape markets and reward the more environmentally responsible companies and products.

Since complex challenges require multiple solutions to effectuate change, using PEG in shaping the new sustainability still leaves a much-needed role for all levels of government. When coupled, PEG and government action can result in the win-win scenario we have long been striving toward.

Practice in Era of Sustainability and Private Environmental Governance.

Markets Don't Deny the Existence or Risks of Global Climate Change
Joseph E. Aldy - Harvard Kennedy School
Harvard Kennedy School
Current Issue
Joseph E. Aldy

Larry Fink is the CEO of BlackRock, the largest money management firm in the world, with more than $6 trillion of assets under management. He recently described climate change as a “defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects” and called for firms to better incorporate global warming in their decisionmaking. He wants corporations to disclose publicly their actions and progress to enable accountability. Fink expects a major reallocation of capital as companies, investors, and governments take climate change more seriously.

The evidence is clear that investment decisions in private companies are beginning to respond to two factors, climate risk and carbon risk. With the increasing severity and, in some cases, frequency of hurricanes, fires, droughts, heat waves, and flooding, companies are dedicating more resources and staff to mitigate the exposure of their assets and supply chains to these risks.

Accounting for such climate risk influences how a company performs when subject to a climate shock, which can signal to investors the extent to which a business has climate-proofed its operations. Recent research by Brigitte Roth Tran and Mathias Kruttli, economists on the staff of the Federal Reserve Board, along with Sumudu Watugala of Cornell has explored how hurricane risk affects the stock returns of publicly traded companies. They find that firms with significant activities exposed to hurricane risk — in terms of both the likelihood that a hurricane will strike the region where a given company has locations as well as the severity of the impacts — are more likely to have lower returns on their stocks and have greater future volatility as reflected in the prices on stock options.

While investors may want some high-risk, high-reward investments in their portfolios, increasing the likelihood of hurricane damages increases the risk without increasing the reward for companies with this greater climate-related exposure. Fully hedging this greater uncertainty in firm performance due to hurricanes would have cost several billion dollars per year over the past several decades.

In housing markets, buyers and sellers are incorporating the potential damages from sea-level rise in the valuations of coastal properties. Comparisons of otherwise similar homes that differ in their likely inundation due to long-term effects find that an exposed house sells for about seven percent less. The price differential reflects how market transactions are pricing in future climate risks.

As governments implement more ambitious efforts to combat climate change, companies face the second factor, carbon risk — the cost for emitting CO2 under these policies that may affect firms’ investments, long-term strategy, and economic returns. Some companies have implemented internal carbon prices to guide their operations and planning. Since 2012, Microsoft has imposed a company-wide carbon tax, which it recently increased to $15 per ton of carbon dioxide, that finances the firm’s climate-related innovation fund. This will be one of the major tools the company employs as it strives for its goal to be carbon-negative by 2030.

Many other companies have employed internal carbon prices as a way to guide investment decisions and the development of strategy consistent with their expectations of future climate policy and carbon prices. It’s important to recognize that incorporating such carbon risk in business planning can help identify opportunities. Companies have a good incentive to explore new opportunities as the clean energy transition progresses. Some companies have noted that actively addressing their role in contributing to climate change has enabled them to attract high-quality, purpose-driven employees. Incorporating carbon pricing as a part of business planning can also appeal to investors — such as those who use BlackRock — who want to ensure that a company’s investments and strategy account for the prospect of carbon risk.

While denial of climate change among some politicians may inhibit, in the near-term, policy action, the business actions by investors and companies alike reflect their understanding that climate risk affects their bottom line. And as the risks of climate change evolve from being distant and abstract to current and salient — more intense hurricanes in the Caribbean and Gulf States, more extreme wildfires in California and Australia, more severe heat waves across Europe, etc. — firms will anticipate that climate risk will inform carbon risk.

Governments already taking action may increase their ambition, and those that have been lagging may finally advance meaningful policies to price carbon and drive investments and behavioral changes in order to mitigate their carbon dioxide emissions.

Markets Don't Deny the Existence or Risks of Global Climate Change.

The Global Covenant of Mayors Supports Cities' Voluntary Efforts
Linda K. Breggin - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Linda K. Breggin

Over 10,000 cities around the world have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors, a coalition of local governments that supports actions to address climate change. The initiative, which is the product of the 2017 merger of the Compact of Mayors and the EU Covenant of Mayors, leverages other networks to provide technical assistance, training, and advisory support to participating cities.

Urban areas are prime candidates for voluntary reduction measures. The organization known as ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability estimates that they are responsible for about 70 percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and are particularly vulnerable to climate change effects such as heat and flooding. GCoM, as the mayoral covenant is known, reports that all regions have “enormous potential for significantly lowering emissions.”

To participate, cities are required to conduct a greenhouse gas emissions inventory; assess their risks and vulnerabilities; set mitigation, resilience, and energy targets; and develop climate action plans. Cities must also track and report their progress. GCoM uses a system that awards “badges” in a city’s online profile when it achieves its fourfold set of requirements.

Cities must prepare a GHG inventory that follows specified accounting principles and uses a common reporting framework. Participants report emissions from three sectors, stationary energy, transportation, and waste, which, according to C40, are the key drivers of urban emissions. Participants also are required to report emissions from electricity generation.

Within two years of joining, cities must set targets that are “as ambitious as” their countries’ own climate protection commitments. GCoM recommends, however, that cities set even “more ambitious” targets.

The risk and vulnerability assessments, which also are required within two years of joining, identify a city’s most significant climate hazards, as well as provide information about their current risk level, future impact, likely intensity, and frequency. GCoM suggests cities also provide information on vulnerable populations.

Participants’ climate action plans must be completed within three years of joining and address both mitigation and adaptation — either in separate or integrated plans. The plans are required to include, among other components, a description of the synergies, tradeoffs, and co-benefits of mitigation and adaptation actions and an assessment of the energy savings, renewable energy production, and GHG emissions reductions associated with each action in the plan. GCoM recommends cities report a financial strategy for each action and list the stakeholders involved in planning and implementation.

Given these stringent participation requirements, why are cities motivated to join GCoM? According to Mary Beth Ikard, Nashville’s transportation and sustainability manager, cities have a “responsibility to account for emissions and chart a path toward reduction,” because citizens are demanding action on climate and cities have shown that “they can have an impact on reducing global emissions by setting policies at the local and regional level.” She also cites myriad benefits of addressing climate change, such as improving public health, stimulating economic development, and creating jobs.

The Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Sarah McKinstry-Wu echoes Ikard’s points. She notes that cities are well positioned to take on the challenge and can reduce their emissions through land use and other policies that affect the carbon footprint of their buildings and transportation systems. She adds that cities also are stepping up to fill the void left by federal inaction.

At the same time, McKinstry-Wu emphasizes that a city’s mitigation abilities are limited if it doesn’t control its power sources. As National Public Radio reported on Atlanta’s efforts to decarbonize, “It turns out one thing Atlanta can’t do is choose where its energy comes from.... As in many places, the utility ... makes that decision because it’s a monopoly [and] it’s also regulated by statewide elected officials ... none of whom has emphasized climate change as a concern.” Since they are major electric customers and regulators of many facets of city-wide transportation, however, cities do have some leverage with utilities.

GCoM posts each city’s data but, to date, has not issued a needed report card on progress toward achieving the targets. Because some cities have failed to meet voluntary goals, critics have questioned the value of such pledges.

But some progress is better than none and, today, subnational initiatives, such as GCoM, are making a real contribution and are about the only game in town when it comes to U.S. governmental action on climate change.

The Global Covenant of Mayors Supports Cities' Voluntary Efforts.