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Environmental Law Scholar Describes Need and Opportunities for Private Climate Governance

Environmental Law Scholar Describes Need, Opportunities for Private Climate Governance

By Bibeane Metsch-Garcia
March 2, 2015

Continued and increased action on climate change is needed now by the private sector because waiting for governmental efforts is untenable, Michael P. Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law at Vanderbilt Law, said at an Environmental Law and Policy Program (ELPP) lecture.

Between the 1970s and 1990, more than a dozen major federal pollution control statutes were passed, but none has been enacted since 1990, said Vandenbergh, also the codirector of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program and director of the Climate Change Research Network, during the Feb. 25 talk. Vandenbergh—who was chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 1995—told students that, with each decade that climate change is ignored by the government, temperatures rise approximately one degree Fahrenheit and the costs of combatting climate change increase by 40 percent, according to a 2014 report by the Council of Economic Advisors.

Given the governmental gridlock that stands in the way of proposals for carbon taxes and international treaties, Vandenbergh urged students to focus on the potential for private entities to govern and impact climate change. He prompted students to think about not only corporations such as Microsoft and Goldman Sachs that have pledged to be carbon neutral but also universities, households, religious organizations, and NGOs.

Vandenbergh emphasized that private attempts to regulate climate change have existed for the past decades. Private action is viable given efficiency gaps, self-interest, and moral motivations, he said. He told the audience about private efforts that regulate 7 percent of global private fish landings and 15 percent of temperate forests. Explaining why corporations in particular may change their behavior absent government coercion, Vandenbergh drew attention to the $92 trillion held by investors who insist on company disclosure of carbon emissions. He also mentioned the benefits for employee morale, accelerating efficiencies, and consumer interest in green products.

With respect to behavior of households, Vandenbergh underscored that some studies suggest that households account for 30 percent to 40 percent of all carbon emissions, so any approach to tackling climate change should include changing the behavior of households and individuals. Increased awareness of the impact of day-to-day activities and myth-busting could have a drastic effect on carbon emissions, he said, citing two salient examples: the myth that hot water is more effective at killing germs and the myth that idling one's car for just over four minutes is the cut-off for not wasting energy. In fact, Vandenbergh explained, there is no evidence regarding the greater effectiveness of hot water against bacteria and the most time that a modern car should idle before energy is wasted is between 10 and 30 seconds.

The difference between the behavior based on these myths and altered behavior would be one million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions saved when less hot water is used, and 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide saved when cars idle for shorter lengths of time. Responding to a question regarding the feasibility for certain populations to make the changes he discussed Vandenbergh noted, "We should all think about not only who is going to suffer the most from mitigation efforts but also from the effects of climate change." He reminded students that under-privileged populations are most at-risk of suffering the long-term consequences of carbon emissions.

In addition to discussing changes that individuals can make to reduce carbon emissions, Vandenbergh mentioned ventures that could increase interest, and belief in, the problem of climate change. He acknowledged that political figures likely have entrenched views on climate change but that individuals may be more open to changed beliefs.

He also raised the possibility of a private climate prediction market in which people could buy predictions on climate change that would increase trust in the accuracy of the science behind climate change. Such a market would be akin to the Iowa Electronic Market used during the last presidential election or New Zealand's iPredict market.

Another institution that could be created to instill public interest in climate change and a less cavalier attitude towards the long-term effects on the environment would be a private climate legacy registry in which behavior would be tracked and available for future generations to check.

The ELPP Lecture Series is organized by Professor David M. Uhlmann, the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice and the director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at Michigan Law.

Professor Vandenbergh's paper, "Beyond Gridlock," is available at

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