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Environmental Law at the Crossroads

By Katie Vloet

In 1988, Michigan Law hosted the first National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) conference at a time of some optimism about the future of environmental legislation. This month, the conference returned to Michigan Law during a time when, said Prof. David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at U-M, "It has been more than 20 years since the United States enacted meaningful environmental change."

View a slideshow of the conference.

Speakers at the two-day conference (March 23–24) said there are plenty of reasons to feel cynical about the attitude in Washington toward environmental issues. Still, many of them pointed out, there are glimmers of hope: state and local regulations that have been beneficial, changes in the international environmental scene that show promise, and the fact that so many law students attended the conference and are impassioned about the issue.

"Now it becomes your story," NAELS Executive Director Dan Worth told them at the conference, "25 Years Back, 25 Years Forward: Environmental Law at the Crossroads."

A quarter-century ago, "We had a Congress that was fully engaged in environmental law," said featured speaker Richard J. Lazarus, the Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard. Strong environmental laws of the 1970s and 1980s seemed the norm. In 1990, Congress passed strong amendments to the Clean Air Act, which appeared to be a promising sign, he said. Instead, "it was Congress's last hurrah," he said.

Speakers and panelists included many high-profile people in the field, including keynote speaker Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; featured speaker John C. Cruden, president of the Environmental Law Institute; and many Michigan Law faculty members and alumni.

View the conference program.

Perciasepe said that many positive changes have happened in recent decades, and it is important to remember those: We enjoy some of the cleanest water on earth; we no longer use asbestos in buildings; children in America have less lead in their blood today than they did a few decades ago. But there's a long way to go, to be sure. "What's happened … is that the laws haven't changed much, but the science and technology have continued to change and get better," he said.

As for the future, he expressed a combination of the reasons for concern and for hope. "The challenges in the future are pretty significant," he said. "But I'm confident that ideas will continue to grow."


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