Designing Law to Prevent Runaway Climate Change

by Melissa Powers

November 15, 2018

This post is part of a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme "Environmental Law. Disrupted." It was originally published on Environmental Law Prof Blog.

"Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets." If that's so, our climate and energy laws have been perfectly designed to fall short. They will not avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change or enable a swift transition to a zero-carbon energy system because they have not been designed to achieve those outcomes. Instead, climate and energy laws in the United States, including those promoted by the most progressive jurisdictions, are designed to gradually reduce some emissions and eventually phase out fossil fuels from some sectors, but they are not designed to achieve the drastic systemic changes in our energy sectors and human behavior that are necessary to quickly and permanently reduce greenhouse gases. Even laws that may appear to have ambitious final targets — such as an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or 100 percent renewable power by 2050 — are designed with loopholes and exemptions that make it unlikely that the targets will be met. For the United States and the world to have a chance of preventing runaway climate change, we need to change our approach lawmaking. Rather than focus on incremental changes that we hope will meet future targets, we must create outcome-oriented climate and energy laws that ensure compliance. Otherwise, the slim chance we have to prevent runaway climate change will be lost.

U.S. environmental law is entering in its fifth decade, and while the existing legal system has produced significant improvements in air and water quality, it is not up to the task of addressing climate change. This is because U.S. environmental law is not end-goal-oriented, and the few laws that may seem to establish ambitious goals are not designed to meet them. Consider the Clean Water Act, which establishes the goal of restoring and maintaining "the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters," so that every U.S. waterbody is fishable and swimmable. However ambitious that goal may seem, the permitting systems under the Clean Water Act are designed and/or applied to allow continued degradation of waterbodies, including those that are neither swimmable nor fishable due to historical and ongoing pollution and habitat destruction. The Clean Air Act's goal of "protect[ing] and enhance[ing] the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population" is too vague to be considered outcome-oriented. And implementation of the Clean Air Act focuses on balancing the economic interests of polluters with the public's interest in pollution reduction. At best, this balance will produce deep emissions reductions where cost-benefit analyses support them, but the balance is subject to distortion — as the Trump administration's ongoing efforts to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations reveal. Even the Acid Rain program under the Clean Air Act, which sets a final aggregate cap on sulfur dioxide emissions, uses a final target that was set based on politics, not environmental needs. U.S. environmental law seeks to slow the pace of degradation or to gradually accelerate the rate of improvement. While it's important that these laws are applied to greenhouse gases until we have better laws in place, it is also essential to recognize that environmental law will not, in and of itself, do the job of preventing runaway climate change.

Nor will state and local efforts, as currently designed, do the job. In response to the Trump administration's announcement that it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement and in response to the Trump administration's assault on dozens of U.S. environmental rules, states and local governments have declared their intent to take a leading role in mitigating climate change. Their actions, while both commendable and necessary, are generally not designed to achieve decarbonization as an end goal. Leading states like California and New York have enacted scores of laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but neither state has committed to energy decarbonization. California recently adopted a target of obtaining 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045, but the state does not have either a goal or a strategy for eliminating fossil fuels from its transportation or heating sectors. Several local governments, happily, have made commitments to decarbonize all aspects of their energy systems. But thus far, they do not have strategies to meet their commitments. In short, we lack both goals and designs for effective decarbonization.

We must change this approach. The United States and the rest of the world must quickly establish and achieve end goals for climate mitigation. Climate scientists have already told us what these end goals must be: for the world to have a chance of keeping temperature increases to tolerable levels, we must decarbonize our energy systems and, ultimately, achieve net-negative emissions targets through carbon sequestration. Global greenhouse gas emissions must stop increasing, immediately, and they must then rapidly drop, so that, by 2050, developed countries emit no greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

U.S. lawmakers at the local, state, and federal (after the Trump administration is out of office) levels must commit to complete energy decarbonization by 2050. They then must design their decarbonization strategies to ensure they meet this ambitious target. Much like we expect architects to design buildings that will perform as expected, we need to expect our lawmakers and regulatory agencies to create decarbonization strategies that will achieve their goals. Rather than apply existing laws with the hope that they will eventually reduce emissions over time, we need to create legal systems that ensure success. If "every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets," it's past time for the United States to adopt a design approach to decarbonization. We can't afford to get it wrong.

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Also from Melissa Powers

Melissa Powers is the Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law and the Director of the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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