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COVID-19 and the Future of Environmental Law

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Akielly Hu

Akielly Hu

Associate Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered profound changes to our everyday lives and economy that will have both immediate and long-term impacts on environmental law. In this month’s issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, Arden Rowell explores the implications of these changes for environmental law, and argues that grappling with them as the pandemic progresses may help lawmakers develop more effective strategies for environmental regulation.

face maskRowell explores four types of change related to behaviors, values, demographics, and available resources. Some behavioral changes, such as decreased travel and production, have led to environmental benefits like cleaner air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. She raises the question of whether environmental laws and policies will or should uphold pandemic-related improvements, or whether pre-pandemic conditions will continue to be the reference point for environmental regulation.

Normative and political values may also shift, especially surrounding COVID-related risks such as human-wildlife interactions and single-use plastics. Increased time spent indoors and closures of national and state parks may lead some to reevaluate the importance of nature, while global behavioral changes prompted by the pandemic could encourage optimism about the capacity for mass behavioral shifts needed to mitigate climate change.

COVID-19 also increases the health risks of air pollution, challenging the existing assumptions and risk analyses embedded in laws such as the Clean Air Act. If COVID-19 leaves populations sicker than they were prior to the pandemic, previously “tolerable” levels of air pollution under existing environmental regulations will lead to disproportionate harm.

Also worthy of note is the pandemic’s continued impact on economic resources and wealth, with potentially fewer resources available for environmental protection now and in the near future. As the pandemic continues to impact our lives, economy, and behavior, Rowell argues that governments and communities should consider these major changes and shift long-held assumptions to adapt existing legal structures and construct a “new normal.”

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