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Rule of Law in Climate Response and Energy Transformation

Friday, April 19, 2019
Amy L. Edwards

Amy L. Edwards

Partner, Holland & Knight, LLP

When I was a child, my father would repeatedly remind me (and my siblings) to “turn off the lights—money doesn’t grow on trees”. Was it because he was concerned about the environment? No, not really—it was because we were relatively poor. But I am pretty good now about remembering to turn off the lights (and I get pretty annoyed when others don’t—especially when the lights are “supposed” to go off automatically but don’t). 

Now, as the current chair of the ABA Section of Environment, Energy and Resources (SEER), I have the ability and privilege to oversee many exciting initiatives. One of these is our current effort to update a 2008 ABA House of Delegates (HOD) resolution, No. 08M 109, on climate change to reflect the growing consensus that the risk of climate change to public health and well-being, human rights, the economy, infrastructure, the environment and natural resources, food systems, and national security is real and of increasing urgency. The science has become only more compelling, and the issue more urgent, in the past decade since the 2008 resolution was adopted. We intend to submit our resolution to the ABA on May 7 and to introduce our updated resolution to the HOD at the ABA annual meeting in San Francisco in August. We encourage all interested parties to contact their state HOD delegates and others in ABA leadership to urge them to support SEER’s resolution on this very important issue.

SEER is also sending a delegation to the World Justice Forum VI in the Hague at the end of April to present on Legal Tools for Advancing Environmental Justice and Public Health. SEER has been an active supporter of this Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) for many years and is very pleased to be presenting at this Forum. SEER’s long-standing involvement in this initiative reinforces the heart and soul of what environmental lawyers do on a daily basis to make this planet better for the next generation. It is why I am encouraged when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teen, started the next-generation climate movement by protesting outside the Swedish Parliament and at a United Nations (U.N.) climate gathering; when 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor led a lonely strike in front of the U.N. since December 2018 to protest the lack of action on climate change; when thousands of students globally skipped school on March 15, 2019, to protest governmental inaction on climate change; and 32,340 children and young people filed an amicus brief in support in the Juliana v. United States (“kids climate”) case. They see climate change as an urgent threat to their generation, and we cannot let them down.

The growing need to take action was evident in the 2018 mid-year elections. Those elections signaled a new interest in, and commitment to, climate response and energy transformation. This transformation was most evident in the enthusiasm behind the Green New Deal, whether those specific legislative principles are ever adopted or not. But the Green New Deal has triggered a broader discussion about the science behind climate change, the threat to national security, and the need to take action. Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the new U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has held a hearing on the climate crisis and introduced a bill, H.R. 9, urging the country to remain in the Paris Climate Accord. She intends to submit a report to the U.S. Congress containing a bold action plan on the climate crisis within a year. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Cal.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have held House Oversight and Reform hearings about the long history of scientific consensus behind the increasing risk of climate change and the threat to national security. Members of Congress are starting to introduce relevant legislation on climate change and energy transformation, ranging from carbon taxes to clean energy standards.

Despite the current Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, many states, local governments, tribes, and businesses remain committed to fighting climate change. At least 10 states, 281 cities and counties, nine tribes, and more than 2,000 businesses have joined the “We Are Still In” coalition to advance the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. At least 1,060 municipalities have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, in which they agree to meet or exceed the Kyoto Protocol goals. More than 90 cities, 10 counties, and two states have adopted 100% clean energy goals. And two prominent SEER members, Michael B. Gerrard and John C. Dernbach, have published a book on Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States. This book provides the toolkit for every lawyer to take concrete steps to reduce climate change.

My local jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, has adopted one of the most ambitious clean energy laws in the country, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018, which commits the District to obtaining a greater portion of its energy from renewable energy sources. This legislation applies building energy performance standards to all privately-owned buildings with at least 10,000 square feet of gross floor area by 2026. District-owned buildings and private buildings with 50,000 square feet will be subject to the building energy performance standards even sooner, by 2021. One question will be how to achieve these imminent mandates while meeting the very pressing need to increase affordable housing in the District. Can we achieve all of these important goals in a relatively short period of time? How?

Let’s begin by turning off those unnecessary lights.