The “Next” Pandemic : How States Can Avert It.

Posted on July 10, 2020 by Nicholas Robinson

The “next” pandemic in the USA is not a question of “if” but of “when.” Just as States scramble to win or shore up their victories against  COVID-19, a second front appears. Can the USA win a two-front war with microbes?

Two parallel infections now afflict separately humans and pigs. A new strain of the H1N1 swine flu virus, which killed 285,000 people when it merged in 2009, is now spreading among humans working on pig farms in China. The National Academy of Science reported this new threat in June  ( https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117). How can the risks to humans from this new virus, G4 EA H1N1, be contained? This human infection is emerging at the same time that  the world experiences the raging animal pandemic of African swine fever virus (AFS). AFS is forcing Asians to kill their domestic pig herds. AFS is now in 17 European nations and threatens to spread across all continents. No one knows now how to contain the AFS Pandemic among animals.

Once early surveillance detects such threats, what  precautions are essential to avert the “next” pandemic? Much is at stake. Since February 18, 2020, when ACOEL published its first Blog on COVID-19, (at http://www.acoel.org/post/2020/02/18/CORONAVIRUS-We-Thought-We-Knew-Ye!-The-Wuhan-Potential-Pandemic.aspx ), the virus SARS-CoV-2  has stolen lives and livelihoods. Its impact has vastly exceeded that of the costly HIV-1/AIDs pandemic, or the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. 

Like the plague, these diseases, along with SARS, EBOLA or West Nile virus, are the result of infections  that spill over from the wild animal kingdom, transmitting disease to  humans. This is known as zoonosis. HIV-1/AIDS came from primates in Africa, and since 1983 has killed 38 million humans, and currently sickens 36.9 million persons.  When COVID-19 first appeared, it was thought to have come via Pangolins, but now is linked to bats (Rhinolophus), which live in habitats across SE Asia and China. Earth holds perhaps 700,000 different viruses, most not yet discovered.  Of the 335 human diseases identified between 1960 and 2004, 61% are of zoonotic origin, and 72 % of all recent diseases are zoonotic.

The frequency of human infections from zoonotic diseases is increasing. Illnesses like Denge, chikungunya, or Zika have shown up in the Americas, and will be joined by others in the future. In 1999, West Nile virus, transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, made its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere in New York, after a drought followed by heavy rains. Since then, over 1,600 people have died of the disease.

Simultaneously while coping with COVID-19, it is evident that governments need to organize to avert a new zoonotic infections. Some are already here, others are coming. For example, Lyme Disease is a continuing threat. Other novel microbes can arrive quickly. Locally infected people travel, and airplanes bring the diseases to distant lands. It took months for rats to bring Bubonic Plague, the medieval “Black Death,” to Europe on sailing ships. Today a virus jumps continents in a few hours. As the economy restarts after COVID-19, governments will need new regimes of phyto-sanitary measures for trade, transportation, and tourism. 

Zoonotic diseases are on the rise for several reasons. Escalating declines in  biodiversity are the root cause. Biodiversity loss is a health risk multiplier.  As populations of species thin, many to the point of extinction, the viruses and bacteria that they host spread out looking for new hosts. Deforestation, and other unsustainable developments, disrupt habitats for many species, which in turn shed their viruses. A zoonotic disease, whether bacteria like Lyme Disease, or a novel coronavirus like SARS, then finds new animal hosts, including eventually human beings. Building new roads or suburban subdivisions fragment the landscape,  severs  migration corridors, and disrupt ecosystems, thereby exposing more humans to zoonotic microbes. Since humans interface with these disturbed natural  habitats,  their likelihood of being infected increases. 

Climate Change impacts are exacerbating biodiversity loss and augment humanity’s interface with zoonotic infections. Extreme weather events cause a cascade of other effects that influence disease. Heat and droughts create dry conditions, providing fuel for forest fires that end up fragmenting forests and driving wildlife closer to humans. Increased rainfall and humidity provide favorable conditions for mosquitoes to breed and for adult mosquitoes to survive.

If society waits for hospitals and health departments to cope with a zoonotic disease, it is too late. The most effective way to prevent or minimize zoonotic spillovers from animals to humans is to keep all animals healthy. Doing so requires greater attention to veterinary science and the health of domesticated animals and agriculture.  For environmental law, it means enhancing nature conservation programs that sustain ecosystem health, everywhere. We reduce the likelihood of zoonotic spillovers by sustaining resilient ecosystems in wetlands, in suburbs, in rural countryside, as well as in parks and wilderness. 

An inter-agency, or “whole of government” collaboration, is required. Such collaboration runs against the grain. We promote agriculture as commerce, with insufficient attention to veterinary health of farmed  animals. The pandemic of AFS has destroyed the pork industry in China and impacts food supplies worldwide. Animal health is treated apart from human health. Humans and animals exchange TB, zoonotic tuberculosis. Developed economies tend to forget that the well-being of all plants, animals and humans is intrinsically connected, and profoundly affect by human activity. The reality is that there is only “One Health.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) endorse a “One Health” approach. The US Centers for Disease Control does too. Consensus favoring a “One Heath” approach has grown, but has been too marginal to make much of a difference. The  Wildlife Conservation Society and German government’s  2019 “Berlin Principles,”  or the 2017 UN Environment Assembly recommendations, and proposals from the EcoHealth Alliance, have all proposed  the “One Health” approach as essential to successfully manage risks of zoonosis.

To date, however, none of the “One Health” advocates  translate this policy construct  into meaningful action. At most they urge that veterinarians and public health  agencies should cooperate. In truth, cooperation between veterinarians, public health agencies, and nature conservation authorities, whether locally or globally through the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), today does not exist. All these entities largely ignore the tools that environmental law offers to effectuate the “One Health” approach.

To avert the spillover of viruses or bacteria from wild animals, it is essential to keep natural habitats healthy.  At the outset, “One Health” should formally recognize the conservation of wild nature as its foundation. Conservation is too often discounted or deemed merely an amenity. Yet if governments at all levels fail to maintain healthy wild habitats, they invite spillovers of virus and bacteria seeking human hosts. Human incursions are increasing disrupting habitat in the forests of Africa, Southeast Asia the Amazon, or the woods of suburban North America. Disease spillovers increase in turn.

Sustaining biodiversity requires maintaining intact and functional ecosystems. These are the fundamental infrastructure for all of life, our health and our socio-economic well-being. Stemming current losses in biodiversity is the front line for protecting human health. Governments need to mainline biodiversity conservation to manage zoonotic disease risks.  

Virtually all governments neglect these tasks. Government budgets reflect an ignorance about the measures that prevent zoonotic spillovers. Budgets invariably assign to Departments of Health more than twice the resources provided for nature conservation and they allocate exponentially more when funding  military or police security.  COVID-19 reveals the folly of this imbalance.  Zoonotic diseases are non-traditional security threats, causing incalculable human and economic loss. The upshot: “Pay me now or pay me later.”

To avert the “next” pandemic, governments can deploy  a number of environmental laws to implement  a “One Health” approach. Environmental laws provide a suite of policies and best practices exists to avert the “next” pandemic. Given what COVID-19 has taught us, there is some urgency in deploying these tools. Would it not be irresponsible to fail to do so?” Will we? The war on COVID-19 has so far precluded debate about preparing to avert the “next” pandemic.  We face  the risk of “business as usual,” and choosing not to learn, as happened after the experience of SARS in 2003-2004. 

Since the “next” zoonotic spillover is underway, it is essential to actively manage the interface between humans and animals. Surveillance of emerging diseases requires collecting data constantly, as a priority. To ensure that warnings from this surveillance are  acted upon,  each level of government needs to provide a strategic, high level coordinating council or executive body to oversee these efforts. Many governments do so now (See the 2019 Trilateral Guidance by WHO, FAO, OiE, at http://www.fao.org/3/ca2942en/ca2942en.pdf).  The USA briefly had such a strategic unit, begun after the Ebola crisis by the Obama Administration. The White House Directorate for Global Heath and Security in the National Security Council addressed these non-traditional security issues.  President Trump discontinued this unit. While the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) could be tasked with these coordinating roles, CEQ’s weakened capacity means that Congress and future Presidents will need to do even more in order to coordinate all federal agencies to protect domestic health. 

Every State government should have a gubernatorial body to prepare for and coordinate zoonotic risk management. Such bodies exist already in some cases. For example, New York State can and should activate the Governor’s Council of Environmental Advisors, as is authorized under Article 7 of the Environmental Conservation Law. A statutory body is needed to prevent a future executive from neglecting this strategic cockpit for “One Health.” Where no such authority exists, the legislature should provide for one.  

A top priority for any executive coordinating body will be to address how to manage zoonotic risks while addressing the impacts climate change. For example, New York’s Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act of June 2019 provides tools that could be used to provide “One Heath” safeguards. In §75-0109 of the Environmental Conservation Law, this Act provides for off-setting carbon emissions through extending forests and other ecosystems to enhance the photosynthesis that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The same healthy habitats serve to avert zoonosis spillover. 

The same Act amended New York State’s Community Risk And Resilience Act in ways that directly also could be deployed to protect against zoonotic diseases.  § 17-A mandates that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)  address impacts on public health and species and to identify the most ”significant climate-related risks,” along with measures to mitigate those risks. § 17-B requires applicants for all permits to identify physical climate-risks and how to handle them and authorizes DEC to mandate mitigation measures. Increased disease spillovers are climate risks. 

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is another readily available tool. The data from environmental assessments can be harvested to identify zoonotic risks. Although President Trump is currently seeking to limit the role of the National Environmental Policy Act, the NEPA Regulations can and should address potential environmental impacts from zoonotic risks. Half the States also have their “little NEPAs” and assess zoonotic risks. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) are prime examples. They require all state and local governmental agencies to make a holistic evaluation of potential environmental impacts and risks. EIA effectively enables a “One Health” approach. Beyond collecting data on ecological zoonotic risks, EIA can identify options for sustaining health of ecosystems to contain spillovers of bacteria and viruses, identify the cumulative impacts exacerbating biodiversity loss, and identify how to fragmentation of intact ecosystems and restore migration corridors for species.

State building codes also serve a role to contain the spread of viruses within buildings.  Codes can be revised to mandate “healthy buildings.” For example, ventilation and filtration systems should be retrofitted to reduce risk of airborne exposures to communicable diseases. See Joseph G. Allen and Joseph D. Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity (Harvard University Press, 2020).  

Ultimately, “One Health” is all about sustaining biodiversity. The federal systems of National Parks, Wildlife Refuges and National Forests provide opportunities to enhance stewardship of natural areas. State park systems, and state wetlands laws, do the same. Zoning and land use laws at the state and local level also can provide for care of natural systems to manage zoonotic risks. Municipal land use laws can provide, for example, for migration corridors through overlay zones, or obliging property owners to control mosquito breeding, all to minimize infection risks. When ecological habitats remain undisturbed, the bacteria and viruses in wild nature tend to remain relatively stable in their natural hosts, which dilutes the chances of spillovers to humans.

Finally, the federal government and the states can establish and enhance phyto-sanitary safeguards for their agricultural sectors, and control animal products  imported into or through the states. Since 1947, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has respected the rights of countries to impose such safeguards. California has done so for many years to protect its agricultural sector. Theses phyto-sanitary norms need to be expanded robustly to address zoonotic risks. Precautions to prevent microbes entering in our airports and at State borders can be established.   

Once a “One Health” approach is made operational, many state agencies will discover how they help  avert the “next” pandemic. There are key roles for agencies regulating agriculture, produce markets, public health, environmental protection, forestry, wildlife conservation, transportation, and other State agencies are key parts of the “One Health” approach. States have substantial expertise in their universities, organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as across their public health sectors. Each state and local agency needs to undertake continuous biodiversity-related heath surveillance in order to detect and manage emerging zoonotic disease spillovers to avert health emergencies. Each can be alert to end habitat fragmentation, and can provide buffer zones that manage disease-risk from human interfaces with animals in shared ecosystems.

Even in the middle of this COVID-19 Pandemic, governments need to be building back better, to be anticipating and preparing for the “next” pandemic. As Ben Franklin said in 1736, “An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure.” States cannot wait for Washington, D.C. They each must build their own resilience. Leadership from the States can pilot the nation toward the security of “One Health.”

CORONAVIRUS, We Thought We Knew Ye! The Wuhan Potential Pandemic

Posted on February 18, 2020 by Nicholas Robinson

The novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has infected more than 50,000 and killed more than 1,000 persons across China. It has spread in France and England, and elsewhere. We knew “it“ was coming, but naively – if imprudently – we repeatedly hope to dodge the bullet. “It” is the class of viruses exchanged across species, a phenomenon known as zoonosis. These viruses inhabit humans and other vertebrate animals alike and each species can infect the other. Public health officials fear 2019-nCoV may spread like the pandemic of “Spanish influenza” in 1918.

It is virtually certain that humans contracted this coronavirus from another mammal, a Pangolin. Across China, wild animals sold in live meat markets convey viruses, having themselves been infected by other species like mosquitos or bats. Pangolins are an endangered species, still prized for their tasty meat and the supposed medicinal attributes of their scales in China and Southeast Asia. Similar patterns exist everywhere. Viruses, transmitted by bats, mosquitos, or other disease vectors, infect vertebrate mammals. In Africa, bush meat of monkeys, rats, fruit bats, and other animals are often infected with viruses from the adjacent forests. In South America, close human association with dogs and cattle brings on leptospirosis, which causes 1.3 million cases per year with some 58,000 deaths.

Such viruses “plague” us. The World Health Organization estimates that 61% of human diseases are zoonotic in origin and 75% of new diseases discovered in the last decade are zoonotic.  Examples of zoonotic diseases include rabies, anthrax, Hantavirus, tularemia, tuberculosis, HIV-1 and 2/AIDS, West Nile virus, Bubonic plague, salmonellosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, MERS and Lyme disease.

What would we give as a society today to have averted HIV/AIDS, whose origins are traced to chimpanzees in Cameroon?  Lifetime medical care for an HIV/AIDs patient exceeds $360,000, and more than one million people live with HIV in the USA alone.  International cooperation prevented widening epidemic of Ebola, which ravaged Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in 2014, at a cost of some $53 billion. The Obama Administration invested $2.34 billion in successfully helping to contain Ebola. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged much as has the 2019-nCoV, in the live meat markets of China. In 2003, meat from a mammal, the Masked Palm Civet, sold in markets in Guangdong, China, was found to hold the SARS coronavirus. SARS spread to 29 countries, where 8,096 people got SARS and 774 of them died; it resulted in costs estimated at $40 billion

All zoonotic viruses leave the animal kingdom to infect humans.  Had society maintained the ecological health of wild forests, we might have prevented the viruses from leaving the animal kingdom. It is essential to confine these viruses to their wild habitats. Doing so is the job of park managers and nature conservation agencies. Once wild animals are taken into the human world, or domesticated, they become the charge of veterinarians and animal welfare agencies. Think of swine flu and avian influenza. Where endangered species are poached and sold, like Asia’s Pangolins or Africa’s Great Apes, there is an urgent need to educate the public and rigorously enforce unlawful trade in animals. Clear phytosanitary standards, with routine inspections, are needed. Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and trade (GATT) authorizes such prudent controls on trade to avert diseases. Endangered species laws need to be rigorously enforced.     

The economic tsunamis of zoonotic diseases, with their tragic losses of life, cannot be prevented by public health programs alone. Governments invest massively in finding cures to the diseases, and spend a pittance to preventing the disease vectors from infecting humans. Containing zoonotic viruses requires strengthening nature conservation and animal welfare programs. It is cost effective to keep the viruses in their natural reservoirs, in the forests, away from people. As Ben Franklin advised us in 1736, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Environmental law can address this imbalance. Zoonosis should be expressly considered in environmental impact assessment. Priority can be given to the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas or the only international organization focused on cooperation between public health, nature conservation and veterinary science:  the World Organization for Animal Health/OIE (see https://www.oie.int/fileadmin/Home/eng/Our_scientific_expertise/docs/pdf/Globalcooperation_oie1.pdf). Environmental Law can encourage inter-agency cooperation on human/animal health. The Wildlife Conservation Society has long promoted “One World, One Health” programs. Until governments recognize that ecological integrity is as important as national security, public health crises will recur.

Locally, reform of building codes can prevent transmission of such viruses. “Healthy buildings,” with ventilation and filtration systems of public spaces, can be retrofitted to reduce risk of airborne exposures of communicable diseases. See Joseph G. Allen and Joseph D. Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity (Harvard University Press, 2020). Governments need to prioritize efforts to sustain the ecological integrity of our local and regional parks and “wild” areas, to be vigilant to detect diseases, like West Nile virus, as viruses appear in our landscapes.

The “next’ pandemic is upon us.

For PEAT’s Sake! Another Pathway Averting Climate Change

Posted on December 1, 2016 by Nicholas Robinson

After the smoke clears, damage still emerges from last spring’s wild and vast fires around Fort McMurray in Alberta. The NYT Science Times  (August 9, 2016) reported how fires like these are destroying Earth’s peat deposits, releasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Long-dead plant material in peat holds ancient carbon, which photosynthesis removed from the air. Worldwide, buried peat holds 30% of all carbon dioxide.

Most know peat only as dried “peat moss” used to enrich flowerbeds. Canada harvests 40,000 acres of peat moss, exporting 90% to the USA for gardeners. Peat is dried when mined. Exposed to the air, the peat oxidizes and its stored carbon is released. In Alberta, peat covers 65% of the oil sands. Cleared to permit surface mining, Alberta’s peat releases upwards of 47.3 million tons of stored carbon into the air. The wild fires ignited this exposed peat, and set peat in the ground ablaze. Fires are still smoldering, awaiting winter rains and snows.

Peat fires burn all around the world until rains extinguish them. Beyond billions of dollars in economic damage, natural systems are impaired. NASA provides an online observatory revealing the extent of these fires. This summer’s Siberian wild peat fires burn on.

Companies unlawfully burn peat in Indonesia to convert wet peat forests to palm oil and pulp plantations. Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions from burning peat are today equal to all the climate-changing emissions of China or the USA. Each year since 1997, the smoke from these fires causes air pollution locally in Riau and across the Straits of Malacca in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.  Southeast Asia’s peat emissions are adding one gigaton of carbon dioxide a year. The Indonesian “Haze” is well documented, as in NASA’s 2014 recorded images.

Although peat deposits exist in all Earth’s regions, peat covers only 3% of the land surface. Peat has accumulated to depths of 30 feet or more. While drained or degraded peat areas are found today on 0.4% of the lands, these areas currently contribute 5% of total greenhouse gas emission. Their volume of emissions grows daily.

Mining of peat is an additional cause of the destruction of peat deposits and carbon emissions.  Peat is mined like coal in Ireland and in each Scandinavian country to fuel electricity generating plants. A new peat-fired power plant has opened in Uganda. The untapped peat in Central Africa is huge. Peat bogs in the Congo exceed the entire landmass of Great Britain. 

Some countries are taking steps to limit disturbance of peat deposits.  Finland, New Zealand and Great Britain are debating ending their exploitation of peat in order to help stop global warming.  Since 1989, Kew Botanical Garden in London has banned the use of peat, although the U.K.’s annual emissions  of carbon dioxide from mining peat for use in compost remain at 400,000 tons.  To stop air pollution of Moscow and halt ongoing greenhouse gases releases, Russia is re-wetting peat areas drained in the 1920s by the USSR. Russia’s protected wilderness areas hold the world’s largest preserved peat habitats.  Peat is protected in federal parks lands of Alaska.

Alternatives exist for every use of peat. Countries could legislate to ban peat sales and restore damaged peat deposits. States like New York or Massachusetts have already done so by adopting strict wetlands laws. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions provides a strong reason to ban sales of peat moss, and prohibit peat mining in Minnesota and nationally.  Emission-trading schemes can help finance transitions from peat abuse to peat preservation.

Peat preservation is critical. Paleoecologists mine peat for knowledge, learning how plants thrived and died over the 11,000 years since the last Ice Age. Peat reveals how climates change.  Accumulating slowly at 1 mm/year, peat is an irreplaceable record of life on Earth. Peat areas also host essential biodiversity.  Indonesia’s peat loss jeopardizes its Orangutan and Sumatran tiger habitat. In less than ten years, the Kampar Peninsula lost 43% of its peat, releasing 1.9 gigatons of greenhouse gases.  Indonesia has lost 18.5 million hectares of forests, an area twice the size of Ireland.

United Nations climate negotiators so far have ignored the plight of peat. At the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, Singapore stated that, “emissions of these fires by errant companies in Indonesia are more than the total CO2 emissions of Germany. This is comparable to the emissions of Japan.”  It is sobering to reflect that Southeast Asia’s peat emissions are matched by those in Canada and elsewhere.

This month, the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature met in the USA for the first time. The 5,000 IUCN delegates in Hawai’i adopted a call for the worldwide protection of peat. Some efforts have begun. The United Kingdom is studying a “Peat Code” to finance peat restoration and preservation by payments to offset other gas emission. In Germany, “MoorFutures” are being offered in Bavaria for investors to finance peat offsets.

Much is at stake. If the climate warms and the peat is allowed to dry and burn across Africa, Asia, Siberia and elsewhere, run-away emissions can result. Aware of mounting environmental degradation, a year ago the nations in the UN General Assembly adopted a new Sustainable Development Goal, to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems” by 2030.  For peat’s sake, let us get on with it.

Pioneering Environmental Law: Remembering David Sive (1922-2014)

Posted on May 2, 2014 by Nicholas Robinson

Before environmental law existed, David Sive knew that the law could protect forests and fields, abate pollution of air and water, and restore the quality that humans expected from their ambient environments.  He fashioned legal arguments and remedies where others saw none.  His commitment to building a field of environmental law is exemplary, not just historically, but because we shall all need to emulate his approach as we cope with the legal challenges accompanying the disruptions accompanying climate change.

David Sive learned to love nature by hiking and rambling from parks in New York City to the wilderness of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains.  He carried Thoreau’s Walden into battle in World War II in Europe, and read William Wordsworth and the Lake poets while recuperating from wounds in hospitals in England.  He had a mature concept of the ethics of nature long before he began to practice environmental law.

His early cases were defensive.  He defended Central Park in Manhattan from the incursion of a restaurant. He rallied the Sierra Club to support a motley citizens’ movement that sought to protect Storm King Mountain from becoming a massive site for generating hydro-electricity on the Hudson River.  Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission [FPC] (2d Cir. 1965), would become the bell-weather decision that inaugurated contemporary environmental law.  The case was based on the multiple use concepts of the Progressive Era’s Federal Power Act.  The FPC (now FERC), had ignored all multiple uses but the one Con Edison advanced.  When the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that citizens had the right to judicial review to require the FPC to study alternative ways to obtain electricity, as well as competing uses for the site, the court laid the basis for what would become Section 102(2)(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

When Consolidated Edison Company decided to build a huge hydroelectric power plant on Storm King, the northern portal to the great fiord of the Hudson River Highlands, citizens and local governments were appalled.  This was no “NIMBY” response.  Con Ed had forgotten that these fabled Highlands inspired the Hudson River School of landscape painting.  This artistic rendering of nature in turn inspired the birth of America’s conservation movement of the late 19th century.  The Hudson also instrumental to the historic birth of this nation; here the patriots’ control of the Highlands had kept the British from uniting their forces, and here soldiers from across the colonies assembled above Storm King for their final encampment as George Washington demobilized his victorious Army.  The Army’s West Point Military Academy overlooks the River and Storm King.  

David Sive and Alfred Forsythe formed the Atlantic Chapter in the early 1960s, despite heated opposition from Californians who worried the Club would be stretched too thin by allowing a chapter on the eastern seaboard.  David Sive chaired the Chapter, whose Conservation Committee debated issues from Maine to Florida.  He represented the Sierra Club, pro bono, in its intervention in the Storm King case, and other citizens brought their worries about misguided government projects or decisions to him. 

David Sive represented similar grassroots community interests in Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe (SDNY 1969), affirmed (2d Cir. 1970).  Transportation Secretary Volpe had approved siting a super-highway in the Hudson River adjacent to the shore in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, to accommodate Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposal to connect his Hudson estate to the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge.  Without the benefit of NEPA or any other environmental statutes, which would be enacted beginning in the 1970s, and relying upon a slender but critical provision of a late 19th century navigation law, after a full trial in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, David Sive prevailed against the State and federal defendants.  He won major victories on procedure, granting standing to sue, and on substance, a ruling that the government acted ultra vires.  David Sive saved the beaches, parks and marinas of the Hudson shore.

Public interest litigation to safeguard the environment was born in these cases.  Public outrage about pollution and degradation of nature was widespread.  In September 1969, the Conservation Foundation convened a conference on “Law and the Environment,” at Airlie House near Warrenton, Virginia.  David Sive was prominent among participants.  His essential argument was that “environmental law” needed to exist. 

On December 1, 1970, Congress enacted the NEPA, creating the world’s first Environmental Impact Assessment procedures and establishing the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).  The CEQ named a Legal Advisory Committee to recommend how agencies should implement NEPA chaired by US Attorney Whitney North Seymour, Jr. (SDNY).  This Committee persuaded CEQ to issue its NEPA “guidelines” on the recommendation of this Committee.  That year launched the “golden age” of NEPA litigation.  Courts everywhere began to hear citizen suits to protect the environment.

David Sive went on to represent citizens in several NEPA cases, winning rulings of first impression.  In 1984, he reorganized his law firm, Sive Paget & Riesel, to specialize in the practice of environmental law.  From the 1970s forward, NEPA allowed proactive suits, no longer the primarily defensive ones of the 1960s. “Citizen suits” were authorized in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other statutes. 

David Sive knew that without widespread support among the bar and public, these pioneering legal measures might not suffice.  He became a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which became one of the nation’s pre-eminent champions of public environmental rights before the courts.  To continue the Airlie House conference precedent, he institutionalized the established professional study of environmental law, as a discipline, through creation of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI).  With ALI-ABA (now ALI-CLE) he launched nationwide continuing legal education courses to education thousands of lawyers in environmental law, a field that did not exist when they attended law school.  He devoted an active decade to teaching law students in environmental law, as a professor at Pace Law School in New York.

This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of its Fifth Assessment Report.  The IPCC summaries of peer-reviewed scientific investigation suggest that law will confront problems even more challenging than those that David Sive addressed.  New legal theories and remedial initiatives will be needed that do not exist today.  The wisdom of ecologist Aldo Leopold can inform the next generation.  Globally, others carry on David Sive’s role, such Attorney Tony Oposa in the Philippines or M. C. Mehta in India.  The law can cope with rising sea levels, adaptation to new rainfall patterns, and other indices of climate change, but it will take individual commitment to think deeply about environmental justice in order to muster the courage to think and act tomorrow as David Sive did yesterday.

A Longer View of “Standing”?

Posted on July 26, 2013 by Nicholas Robinson

Environmental adjudication today is global. Fifty nations have established more than four hundred specialized environmental courts and tribunals, supplementing their courts of general jurisdiction. A new body of ecological jurisprudence, ripe for comparative law analysis, has emerged.

This world-wide phenomenon should not be surprising.  As the environment degrades (see UNEP GEO5), disputes arise and courts are engaged. Most nations have adequate environmental statutes, but problems fester with weak or corrupt enforcement. Courts put the teeth back into these laws.  Throughout South Asia, courts establish judicial commissions to oversee remediation of refuse dumps or abatement of acute pollution.  In China, a court in Quingzhen enforced a state-owned chemical enterprise from polluting drinking water and mandated remediation.  In Brazil, a rule-of-decision (in dubio pro natura) guides judges to protect nature when the merits are balanced or in doubt.   In the Philippines, the Supreme Court established a new, extraordinary, Writ of Kalikasan (nature). This precedent shifts the burden of proof to the party alleged to have and violated environmental law; the respondent must prove it has not harmed the environment and has complied with all laws.

Judicial decisions also enforce constitutional guarantees of environmental rights.  Of the 196 member states in the United Nations, 147 currently recognize a right to the environment comparable to human rights. Procedural access to justice was enshrined as Principle 10 in the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration on Environmental and Development and has become a treaty of obligation across Europe (Aarhus Convention, 2161 UNTS 447).

In the United States, federal courts have shaped administrative law for two decades through environmental cases.  The United States inspired Principle 10 initially through the Administrative Procedure Act § 10 and the National Environmental Policy Act litigation, confirmed by the citizen suit provisions in federal statutes.  It is ironic that as most nations liberalize standing in environmental matters, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings are gradually restricting such access.  Although many state courts continue to liberalize standing, U.S. federal courts are out of step with trends worldwide.

Courts are crucial to realizing the objectives of environmental laws.  The Environmental and Law Court of New South Wales (Australia) boasts three decades of innovative environmental adjudication.  From the oldest of such courts, in New Zealand (1950’s), to the most recently formed court in Kenya (2010), courts provide prompt effective decisions.  Not all nations are responsive to environmental claims.  Courts in most Arab states have so far resisted reforms to provide access to justice, as has Russia. 

Environmental disruption is a gathering storm across the earth.  Courts, embedded in society, ignore environmental claims at the risk of proving Lord Denning’s maxim, “the delay of justice is a denial of justice.”  Early judicial action has a new gloss and remedies escalating ecological harm.  Delay aggravates the harm, rendering later remedies more costly and difficult.

In the majority of nations, the courts increasingly understand this reality. Will the U.S. Supreme Court join the laggard nations, and retard access to environmental justice?