What We Learned From COVID-19: Opportunities for Reframing Environmental Law

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Already under ever-increasing threats from climate change, the world faced another crisis in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic. A public health emergency of this scale requires swift and effective policy action—but in many cases, the United States fell short, revealing ongoing failures to address systemic injustices exacerbated by the disease. In this month’s issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, members of the Environmental Law Collaborative, an affiliation of environmental law professors, examine the country’s legal responses to COVID-19, offering thoughts about pandemic ripple effects and their implications for environmental policy, as well as potential opportunities going forward. The article is excerpted from their book, Environmental Law, Disrupted, to be published by ELI Press later this year.

Earth covered by COVID-19The authors explore how the pandemic revealed major weaknesses in our economy and society, including a glut of oil in a fossil fuel-reliant energy system, a lack of adequate social safety nets, and supply chain issues. COVID-19 worsened existing systemic injustices, including inequities in pollution burden, access to healthcare, compensation and hiring, and economic relief. Anti-regulatory agendas, including a rollback of environmental policies, and anti-science rhetoric in the Trump Administration only served to exacerbate these issues.

Understanding the ramifications of legal responses to COVID-19 provide important lessons for environmental law moving forward. The authors argue that adopting the principles of environmental justice and climate justice is imperative to adapting to and mitigating climate change. So too will strengthening governance structures and regulatory capacity in order to respond to future crises.

Environmental issues such as air and water pollution, biodiversity conservation, and climate change require global, coordinated responses—much like the pandemic. Robust national policies from the federal government, along with targeted implementation and adaptation from states and locales, will be needed to prepare for and address the climate crisis.

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