By Jeremy Deaton
For the last forty-odd years, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has been a mainstay of the conservative movement and major force in shaping state laws. The organization brings together state lawmakers and corporate leaders to draft business-friendly policies that are then ferried to statehouses around the country. ALEC is a primary reason why Iowa, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, for example, have all passed different versions of the same law penalizing protests at oil and gas pipelines.
ALEC’s methods have been so effective in aiding polluters — and so frustrating to climate advocates — that a pair of seasoned environmental lawyers are now deploying the same strategy to tackle climate change.
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, and John Dernbach, director of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center at Widener University, have published a 1,100-page compendium of policy ideas, and they are organizing lawyers across the United States to write laws based on the ideas laid out in the book — laws that can then be distributed, ALEC style, to local, state, and federal lawmakers.
“It’s a smart strategy because the easier you make the adoption of these recommendations, the more likely they are to get adopted,” Dernbach said. “Michael and I and the people on this project are really deeply motivated by the urgency of the climate issue. Anything we can do that makes it easier for decision makers to adopt the recommendations in the book sooner rather than later is good.”
Dozens of lawyers from all over the country contributed to the book, which lists more than a thousand policies aimed at dramatically cutting carbon pollution in the United States. Authors propose resurrecting Obama-era climate protections, putting a price on carbon, cutting red tape tying up new wind and solar projects, along with numerous other measures related to agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, clean energy research, and carbon capture, as well as ways to ensure fossil fuel workers aren’t left behind in the shift to clean energy. While policymakers are the primary audience for the book, authors also included recommendations for businesses looking to tackle climate change.
The book draws upon research showing how the United States could cut carbon pollution by 80 percent by 2050. That data makes clear that it’s not enough, for instance, just to shut down coal-fired power plants. The United States would need to do everything from overhauling polluting factories to abandoning fridges and air conditioners that make use of powerful heat-trapping gases. The book enumerates the policies needed to achieve those goals.
“There’s not another book like it anywhere,” said Dernbach, who variously compared the work to a “playbook,” a “cookbook,” and a “menu.” The tome is so expansive, he said, that it contains both the building blocks of a Green New Deal, as well as a slate of policies, such as funding for research, that he believes could pass muster with conservatives.
To help implement those policies, Dernbach and Gerrard, with the help of Richard Horsch, a retired environmental lawyer, are assembling a battalion of legal experts who will work pro bono to turn the recommendations into draft laws. And they are developing a website where those draft laws will be available for lawmakers to copy and paste.
This project gives lawyers an opportunity to work on climate change without contending with potential conflicts of interest. “Many kinds of climate change litigation involve suing the sorts of companies that many big firms represent. This work doesn’t involve that,” he said. Gerrard said the response from law firms thus far has been positive. “We’ve already heard back from several lawyers and law firms and expect to be hearing from more,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of appetite among many lawyers in the U.S. to apply their professional skills to the fight against climate change.”
Gerrard said the vast scope of the project is significant given that so many policies are needed to tackle the problem. “There is no silver bullet to solve climate problems. It’s hundreds or thousands of incremental actions,” he said. “I think this is the first time that anyone has tackled comprehensively the actual legal nitty gritty of radically reducing greenhouse gases. There have been many grand visions, but there have been few that have gotten deeply into the weeds.”