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Environmental LawEnvironmental Law & Politics

Environmental Law & Politics

the environment—in particular, global warming—burst into the public consciousness. Former Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize and saw his film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” win an Oscar and become the fourth highest-grossing documentary of all time. International leaders gathered in Bali at the close of the year to launch a new round of climate change negotiations. And here at home, the United States Congress took up varying proposals to combat global warming while the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on the issue.

Global warming may represent the newest frontier in environmental law, but the lawmaking institutions working to address it have more than 30 years of history on which to build. This history has been tumultuous, but throughout it environmental law has grown, overcoming challenges and demonstrating a surprising resilience. Whether tackling global warming, water pollution, or the protection of endangered species, environmental lawmaking is uniquely and inherently difficult. As such, its persistence over the past three decades is even more remarkable. Making environmental law is difficult in part because the environment itself is so complex. Ecological systems are complicated and dynamic, as are the factors that contribute to environmental change. Environmental law must take this complexity into account. For example, when setting standards limiting the amount of a particular air pollutant, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must consider ecological factors including temperature, atmospheric pressure, and wind.

The Road to Environmental Law
Despite these obstacles, the seeds of environmental law germinated several decades ago, and by 1970 its roots were firmly planted. While the term “environmental law” was not formally coined until 1969, numerous natural resource and pollution control laws were on the books far beforehand. Early federal regulation of forests, minerals, and other resources favored private economic exploitation. Beginning in the early to mid-20th century, Congress enacted a set of natural resource laws that gradually jettisoned this one-sided approach and began embracing the goals of preservation and conservation. Early laws such as the Antiquities Act of 1935 set the stage for a series of even more protective ones in the 1960s, culminating with the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. At the same time, Congress passed a number of clean air and water laws in the 1960s that served as precedents for even more ambitious lawmaking to come.

The 1980s: Consensus Breaks Down
The 1980s were tumultuous years that saw numerous challenges to environmental law—but in the end confirmed its surprising persistence. President Nixon may have begun his administration as a cheerleader for environmental law and ended as a skeptic, but President Ronald Reagan left no doubt about where he stood on the body of laws enacted in the 1970s. Reagan aligned himself with the “Sagebrush Rebels,” a movement of western opponents of federal ownership of public lands. Immediately after his inauguration, he launched a cabinet-level task force on “regulatory relief” that suspended numerous pending regulations and encouraged industry to target particularly burdensome ones. Similarly, he signed an executive order requiring cost-benefit analysis of major rules and giving the Office of Management and Budget significant authority to review and shape regulations.

The Future
The 21st century has brought new challenges, none greater than global warming. The most powerful and wealthiest nations in the world are the greatest cause of greenhouse gas emissions; by contrast, many of the poorest parts of the globe are most immediately and devastatingly threatened. Effective control of global warming, moreover, will require not only major reductions by the world’s most powerful countries but also the agreement of developing nations now caught in a bind between economic development and the environment.Environmental Law & Politics

the environment—in particular, global warming—burst into the public consciousness. Former Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize and saw his film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” win an Oscar and become the fourth highest-grossing documentary of all time. International leaders gathered in Bali at the close of the year to launch a new round of climate change negotiations. And here at home, the United States Congress took up varying proposals to combat global warming while the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on the issue.

Global warming may represent the newest frontier in environmental law, but the lawmaking institutions working to address it have more than 30 years of history on which to build. This history has been tumultuous, but throughout it environmental law has grown, overcoming challenges and demonstrating a surprising resilience. Whether tackling global warming, water pollution, or the protection of endangered species, environmental lawmaking is uniquely and inherently difficult. As such, its persistence over the past three decades is even more remarkable. Making environmental law is difficult in part because the environment itself is so complex. Ecological systems are complicated and dynamic, as are the factors that contribute to environmental change. Environmental law must take this complexity into account. For example, when setting standards limiting the amount of a particular air pollutant, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must consider ecological factors including temperature, atmospheric pressure, and wind.

The Road to Environmental Law
Despite these obstacles, the seeds of environmental law germinated several decades ago, and by 1970 its roots were firmly planted. While the term “environmental law” was not formally coined until 1969, numerous natural resource and pollution control laws were on the books far beforehand. Early federal regulation of forests, minerals, and other resources favored private economic exploitation. Beginning in the early to mid-20th century, Congress enacted a set of natural resource laws that gradually jettisoned this one-sided approach and began embracing the goals of preservation and conservation. Early laws such as the Antiquities Act of 1935 set the stage for a series of even more protective ones in the 1960s, culminating with the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. At the same time, Congress passed a number of clean air and water laws in the 1960s that served as precedents for even more ambitious lawmaking to come.

The 1980s: Consensus Breaks Down
The 1980s were tumultuous years that saw numerous challenges to environmental law—but in the end confirmed its surprising persistence. President Nixon may have begun his administration as a cheerleader for environmental law and ended as a skeptic, but President Ronald Reagan left no doubt about where he stood on the body of laws enacted in the 1970s. Reagan aligned himself with the “Sagebrush Rebels,” a movement of western opponents of federal ownership of public lands. Immediately after his inauguration, he launched a cabinet-level task force on “regulatory relief” that suspended numerous pending regulations and encouraged industry to target particularly burdensome ones. Similarly, he signed an executive order requiring cost-benefit analysis of major rules and giving the Office of Management and Budget significant authority to review and shape regulations.

The Future
The 21st century has brought new challenges, none greater than global warming. The most powerful and wealthiest nations in the world are the greatest cause of greenhouse gas emissions; by contrast, many of the poorest parts of the globe are most immediately and devastatingly threatened. Effective control of global warming, moreover, will require not only major reductions by the world’s most powerful countries but also the agreement of developing nations now caught in a bind between economic development and the environment.

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