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Earthjustice President Talks Politics, Law, and Greenhouse Gases

by John Masson

Trip Van Noppen, the president of Earthjustice and a recent speaker in Michigan Law's Environmental Law & Policy Program (ELPP) lecture series, had a fairly simple message for his audience this week:

Remember Joe Mendelson.

Mendelson was the relatively anonymous lawyer who petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency back in 1999, trying to get the agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Once the petition was made, Van Noppen said, the law required EPA to either agree to the change or deny it—a denial that could be appealed in court. And ultimately that's where Mendelson's petition wound up, working its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the form of Massachusetts v. EPA. The Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, which prompted EPA to find that greenhouse gases endanger public health.

Much of what's happened since, Van Noppen said, highlights the sausage-making aspects of the political process—hence the title of his lecture, "Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Where Law and Politics Intersect."

At some points in the process, Democrats whom environmental activists usually counted on for support instead voted against new regulations, Van Noppen said.

"We had paid a price by being too nice to our friends" in the past, Van Noppen said. But after the defection of some of their traditional supporters, a series of sharp-elbowed ads targeting Democrats made an important point.

"Those ads were noticed," he said.

But the bottom line, he said, is that on March 27, after years of up-and-down struggles, EPA announced new greenhouse gas rules that likely mean the end of new coal plants in the United States. And as the legal arguments for and against protecting the environment unwind in various courts in the future, Van Noppen said it's important to note one crucial fact:

"In the courtroom, it is not a case about science," he said. "There's no dispute in the courtroom that the scientific basis is there."

Van Noppen was introduced by Dean Marie Lynn Miranda from the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Prof. David Uhlmann, director of the ELPP, welcomed them both.

"In the absence of federal legislation to combat global climate change, regulations under the Clean Air Act will remain the primary tool under federal law for protecting the public and the environment from global warming," Uhlmann said. "Our students can and will make a difference in that effort."

Van Noppen wrapped up his talk by advising members of the audience that no matter their professions or their ages, the coming massive transformations in the way energy is produced and used will affect them—and their children—for the rest of their lives. And no matter how difficult the work of protecting the environment, he reminded them that everyone is capable of effecting change.

"When you think about how you're going to make a difference," he said, "keep Joe Mendelson in mind."


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