‘This is how to build it’: Book aims to provide a legal guide to decarbonization

Roland Balik / U.S. Air Force

Wyatt Whelan, left, and Eric Roberts lift a photovoltaic panel onto a roof in the Dover Family Housing community at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The 1,000-plus page volume is meant to offer policymakers a variety of templates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In response to the sometimes mind-numbing and frightening challenges that climate change presents to humanity, a pair of legal scholars have something to offer — an enormous new book filled with over 1,000 potential solutions.

“Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States” outlines recommendations to help arm policymakers, the legal community, and everyday citizens with a giant menu of legal options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050.

“No one has done this, at this scale, in the U.S.,” said John Dernbach, director of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center at Widener University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Dernbach co-edited the book, along with Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“The book answers the question, ‘What should we do?’ It turns out, there are all kinds of things we can do, and that’s a big deal,” Dernbach said. “This is a technically difficult subject and we decided to take it head-on.”

He calls it a “playbook” for how to achieve the necessary emissions reductions scientists are calling for.

“This is the legal version of the Manhattan Project, but for climate change. You want to know how to build this? This is how to build it,” he said.

“Legal Pathways” runs over 1,100 pages and includes 35 chapters, written by 59 contributors from law firms, academia, and environmental organizations. It costs $64.95, but a 161-page summary is available for free online. Recommendations include a federal carbon tax that begins at $25 per metric ton and increases over time; creating state-level “competitive renewable energy zones” to improve and expand transmission infrastructure; placing bans on oil and gas development; and preserving and expanding forest lands.

The solutions aren’t limited to regulations.

“There are 12 different types of legal tools in the book, only one of which is additional regulation,” Dernbach said. “The other 11 cover a lot of ground. Some are market-based tools. A great many just remove legal obstacles to clean energy — like financing or permitting. One of the most helpful things governments at all levels can do is remove obstacles.”

‘A unique resource’

“Legal Pathways” is not meant to be read cover-to-cover. Instead, it provides an index arranged by actor — including local, state, and federal government. Someone working for a city, for example, can search for legal tools that can be implemented at a local level, regardless of which chapter they fall into.

“The book is a unique resource,” said Neil Leary, director of the Center for Sustainability Education at Dickinson College, who was not involved in the project. “It’s organized in a really useful way. So if you’re looking at, let’s say, ‘utility-scale renewable generation,’ people who have an interest in promoting those things can dig into those chapters in their region to help promote them.”

The chapter authors were asked to include recommendations even if they don’t seem politically feasible or realistic right now. “The idea was to identify all significant legal pathways for deep decarbonization in the United States, recognizing that Legal Pathways hopefully should have not just immediate value but value over time,” Dernbach wrote in the introduction.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, a Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs, is among the most vocal environmental advocates in the Pennsylvania Legislature, but even he doubts he’ll have time to dig into the book for a while.

“If you’re caught up in the legislative swirl, the luxury of reading books like that perhaps isn’t there,” Vitali said. “I think our main challenge is to figure out how we are going to get environmental policies which we are familiar with through.”

The overall aim of the book is to make life easier for policymakers — not to be a tome collecting dust on a shelf.

That’s why Dernbach and his co-editor Gerrard have partnered with Richard Horsch, a retired partner from the international law firm White & Case LLP, to assemble a network of attorneys around the country to donate their time and turn the book’s recommendations into model climate laws and regulation.

Dernbach and Gerrard also plan to launch a website in May that will be a platform to provide resources and information to policymakers, lawyers and advocates.

“We’re not interested in replicating the whole book,” Dernbach said. “But as model laws get proposed and adopted, we want to use the website as a vehicle for providing the public with information on how this is all going.”

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