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Environmental Lawyers, Activists Outline Critical Legal Changes Necessary to Avert Climate Catastrophe at Recent ELPP Conference

By 3L Olivia Cares
April 30, 2019

Legal experts and activists working to address the urgent threat of climate change convened at Michigan Law April 11–12 for the biennial Environmental Law and Policy Program (ELPP) Conference. This year's conference, titled "Planet in Peril: Averting Climate Catastrophe Through Law and Social Change," was devoted to exploring how diverse actors within the legal system must coordinate action on climate change. The disastrous consequences of anthropogenic global temperature increases were punctuated in ELPP Director David Uhlmann's opening remarks, in which he recalled his opening statement from a conference nearly 10 years ago calling for the need for urgent climate action, an imperative rendered all the more pressing as climate disruption accelerates.

Jonathan Overpeck, dean of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, kicked off the day-and-a-half long conference by presenting the scientific context for the legal efforts, with a status report on the latest developments in climate science. Overpeck's keynote address, "The Climate in Peril," highlighted what he refers to as "sharp edges"—the worst effects of climate change that we can expect in the United States and around the globe. 

Overpeck emphasized that climate disruption is as present as it is anticipated. His detailed examples included a recent catalogue of extreme weather events ranging from powerful hurricanes along the coasts, flooding in the Plains caused by larger rain events, the depletion of reservoirs and in-stream flow levels in rivers in the Southwest during the 20-year-long temperature drought in that region, and wildfires resulting from that drought.

Most significantly, Overpeck sounded an urgent call to action: The climate change assessments he provided indicate that the international community has just over a decade to drastically reduce its emission of greenhouse gases. Ruling out geoengineering as a realistic option to respond to the threat of climate change, he reiterated the scientific consensus that failure to achieve the large-scale emissions reduction necessary to limit the global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius could result in irreversible and catastrophic climate alteration within this century.

Overpeck's prescribed emissions reduction calls for legislative action at all levels of governance to curb carbon reliance, in addition to social change and conscious consumer practices that will upend the use of carbon and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions. These challenges were discussed in detail during Friday's panel discussions and breakout sessions, which were moderated by Michigan Law professors and included academics, practitioners, and activists from across the United States.

Friday's sessions focused on international efforts to accelerate carbon reduction and act on climate change after the landmark Paris Agreement; U.S. national approaches to respond to climate change through all branches of the federal government, especially as the current administration refuses to recognize climate change; state and municipal opportunities to fill the gap in federal climate action; and corporate governance approaches to create synergy between business objectives and the climate reality. Concurrent break-out panels at lunch targeted the effects of climate change on the food, water, and agriculture industries and on the energy industry.

While each session was marked by a sense of urgency and by the ominous risk of failure, panelists and presenters lauded the emergence of a new generation of leadership on climate change and the opportunity to act before it is too late. Overpeck's keynote address, along with each of the panels presented on Friday, emphasized the imperative for swift action and dramatic shifts in how we mitigate and adapt to climate change to avert the worst effects of climate disruption. 

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