ACOEL Member Awarded First Columbia University Climate Change Chair

Posted on December 14, 2009 by Rachael Bunday

LAW: Climate change, a 'popular' area of law, gets its first endowed professor (12/14/2009)

Annie Jia, E&E reporter

Columbia University has established what it says is the world's first endowed professorship in climate change law.

The endowment will be a permanent source of funding for the director of the university's Center for Climate Change Law, which was founded in January. But it also secures a faculty position in a field that, though relatively young, is growing rapidly as climate change becomes an increasingly visible issue and is poised soon to come under complex federal legislation.

"The policies that are being negotiated in Copenhagen right now and that are under debate in Congress and around the country and the world will be implemented through the mechanism of laws," explained Michael Gerard, a longtime environmental lawyer and the center's director, who has been awarded the professorship.

Climate change law emerged as a field only a few years ago and is now the fastest-growing area of environmental law, Gerrard said.

"It was nothing of a field a few years ago," said Gerrard, who began work in the area in 2005, "and it is now by far the most popular subject of ... continuing legal education programs, as well as law school symposia and special journal issues."

From salamanders to the academy

Andrew Sabin, whose foundation, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, was a major funder of the endowment for the professorship, said he decided to contribute because he has known Gerrard for a long time and "we're good friends. There's nobody better. Ask any environmental lawyer in the country." Sabin declined to state the amount that his foundation contributed to the endowment.

Sabin, president of a precious metals refining company, has worked with Gerrard on several legal cases since the 1990s. The first case was over "some environmental issues" regarding one of the company's factories, Gerrard said.

But Gerrard has not only represented Sabin's company.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Sabin has fought a number of developments since the late 1980s that would infringe on the habitat of the Eastern tiger salamander, which is listed as an endangered species in New York state, where he lives.

One fight brought him head-to-head with Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, which was building a mall in Riverside in the mid-1990s.

"The mall hired the best developer lawyer they could find, and I hired the best environmental lawyer," Sabin said. "I did this because of my passion." As a successful businessman, he could afford such suits, whereas environmental organizations often do not have the money to fight them, he said. The case resulted in the creation of a 32.5-acre preserve for the salamanders.

Sabin is also a member of the organization Republicans for Environmental Protection and said he believes firmly in environmental education. As a Republican, he said, he is in a strong position to influence other Republicans' views on climate change "from inside."

"To me, climate change, I believe it's real, I believe it is happening. ... I believe that man has accelerated it; it's not reversible," he said. "By establishing this [endowed professorship], hopefully, a lot of people are going to be educated on climate change."

Litigation around climate change is growing

Gerrard said the number of lawyers dedicated to climate change law in the United States is still "modest."

Hannah Chang, deputy director of the Columbia Climate Center and a postdoctoral research fellow at the university, said that much climate change law work in the United States currently centers on litigation.

Litigation can include everything from attempts to force the government to act -- for example, to regulate greenhouse gases -- to challenges to government regulations -- such as vehicle standards -- to suits seeking monetary redress from corporations for damages from climate change.

In one case, landowners in Mississippi brought a suit against oil, chemical, and coal companies based on the claim that Hurricane Katrina was made worse by climate change, Gerrard said.

A 'whole host of issues'

But as U.S. EPA prepares to release its rules on greenhouse gas emission regulation, and as Congress debates sweeping climate legislation, the legal community is gearing up for much more work in the area.

"Most, if not all, of the law firms with environmental practices are educating themselves and trying to position themselves to do the work when it comes," Gerrard said.

Besides litigation, climate change law could range from regulatory advice to transactional work to lobbying to corporate compliance advice regarding securities disclosures, Gerrard said.

"Treaties and statutes and regulations will be required to determine what emissions are permissible, who will bear the costs, what energy efficiency improvements will be required, how the nations of the world will deal with each other on these issues, how buildings will achieve energy savings -- a whole host of issues will be subject to laws," Gerrard said.

Climate change law is a sweeping area and goes beyond simple environmental law, Gerrard said, who has worked in environmental law for 30 years.

Energy law, corporate law, securities law, tax law, transportation law, agricultural law, international law, trade law and other fields are all involved, he said.



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