5 Questions on the Midterms with Environmental Law Prof. Michael Gerrard

October 29, 2018
Michael Gerrard

Michael Gerrard, the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, begins his course on climate change law and policy by encouraging students to challenge him. Some do, but his views remain steadfast.

“The history books will show how, in the face of growing scientific evidence of the extreme perils of climate change, the Trump administration acted aggressively to reverse progress, increase rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and further reduce the chances that humanity and the natural world would avoid the worst impacts,” said Gerrard, an environmental lawyer and director of the Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, which he founded in 2009 to develop legal techniques to fight climate change.

Since the day of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, the Center has been tracking the administration’s efforts to scale back or eliminate federal measures to mitigate climate change and to restrict or prohibit scientific research.

Q. What’s at stake for environmental policy in the midterm elections?

A. This election is extremely important. The Trump administration has been attempting to systematically roll back environmental regulations across a broad range of subject areas -- climate change, air pollution, water pollution, toxic substances, endangered species, and others. So far, Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate have gone along, and have confirmed Presidential appointees who vowed to pursue this agenda. The midterm election will determine whether this pattern remains for the next two years or faces resistance.

Q. How has the situation changed since the 2016 election?

A. Environmental regulations are being rescinded or ignored, no new environmentally-positive regulations are being adopted, enforcement is dropping off. Polluters are emboldened, fossil fuel development is accelerating, the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental regulators are suffering a brain drain and also not attracting the best new people. Science is being ignored when inconvenient, and U.S. leadership in global environmental issues has been lost.

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Q. What can the Democrats do if they win control of the House and/or the Senate?

A. If the Democrats win control of either chamber, there can be extensive committee hearings and investigations into all the deregulatory actions by the administration -- just as, during portions of the Obama administration, when the Republicans controlled one or both chambers, hostile committees aggressively interrogated administration officials. If the Senate falls under Democratic control, Trump appointees to the administration and the judiciary will face much greater scrutiny, and the pace of confirmations will fall.

Q. Has anything made a difference?

A. Litigation has impeded the Trump administration's efforts to revoke or repeal environmental protections, since many of those efforts were undertaken in violation of statutes that are still on the books. An army of environmental lawyers is at work resisting the deregulatory campaign and fighting fossil fuel development. Many states and cities are taking action on their own to reduce emissions within their borders and to prepare for the coming impacts of climate change. These actions are very important but they are not sufficient in the absence of federal action.

Q. What worries you the most?

A. The climate change situation is becoming more and more alarming, with record-breaking heat waves, extreme precipitation events, melting ice, sea level rise, and a host of other impacts. The odds to preventing catastrophic climate change are becoming ever smaller. The greenhouse-gas emission and fuel-economy standards for passenger vehicles are probably the items whose fate has the greatest impact on fossil fuel use.

—By Georgette Jasen