ROYALTON — The number of climate change-related court cases has risen dramatically during the Trump administration, and Ellen Gilmer has an idea as to why.
“Ever since President Trump took office there’s definitely been an uptick in litigation from environmental groups in general,” Gilmer said. “The environmental community and those who favor activism don’t feel they have someone in the White House who is receptive to their concerns.”
Without environmental leadership from the president or Congress, Gilmer explained, the courts have become the primary avenue for those hoping to advocate for greener climate policies. This new trend is part of what Gilmer plans to address in her talk at Vermont Law School, “Climate Change In The Courts” at noon Tuesday. Gilmer is a journalist at E&E News who has spent her career covering environmental policy, and she is one of Vermont Law School’s summer fellows. Her lecture is part of the school’s Hot Topics summer series and is free and open to the public.
During the talk, Gilmer plans to cover a range of federal cases related to climate change from both before and during the Trump administration.
“I’m going to be doing sort of a broad survey of big climate-related litigation,” she said. “Some of it is Trump specific and some of it is not.”
One of the cases she will address is a lawsuit being brought by young people in Oregon who are arguing that the United States government has a constitutional obligation to ensure an environmentally sustainable future for younger generations. The case is currently waiting for a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California, and it was first filed in 2015.
Also, she will touch on some of the cases that are part of the increase in climate change litigation that has occurred under Trump.
“I’ll be talking about big federal litigation about the Trump administration’s decision to rollback Obama-era regulations,” she said. Two of the industries that have experienced regulatory rollbacks are power and transportation, Gilmer explained, which are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Gilmer will be joined onstage by two other panelists, both law professors — Joel Eisen of the University of Richmond, and Vermont Law School’s Pat Parenteau.
Parenteau also serves as senior counsel to the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, and he emphasized that the newfound reliance on the court for climate protection is not normal.
“We’re turning more and more to the courts because the other two branches of government are not doing what they’re supposed to do to protect the United States,” he said. “In fact, federal government policies right now are going in the opposite direction.”
According to Parenteau, the Trump administration’s rollback of climate regulations has impacted how he teaches environmental law.
“It’s a big, very challenging time to be teaching law students. You’re trying to teach them what the law was, what the law should be and why the courts have become so central to trying to tackle climate change,” he said. “The students have to understand this isn’t normal. We wouldn’t normally be relying on the courts for policy.”
One thing Parenteau struggles with is communicating the urgency of the problem to students, and to others, without making them feel too hopeless to act.
“It’s an irreversible problem. It’s an exponential problem, and time is absolutely of the essence. And in order to convince people that time is of the essence you have to talk about the danger, you have to talk about committing our children and grandchildren to frankly a hellish future,” he said. “You can then quickly pivot and say these are all the terrific things we can do right now, off the shelf, to tackle the problem and conquer it.”
Part of the solution, in Parenteau’s mind, is making climate change a priority in the 2020 election so that the courts no longer have to take a leading role in creating and enforcing environmental policies.
“2020 is the last chance to do something meaningful to prevent runaway climate change,” he said. “And without the United States, the rest of the world is not going to follow.”
For her part, Gilmer has hope about the future of environmental journalism, which she believes plays a critical role in climate change discourse.
“I hope that commitment to environmental journalism continues,” she said. “It’s such a complicated area of policy. It’s important to have journalists to translate what’s going on to the general public so the public can know what’s going on.”