It has been two weeks since I returned from Jakarta where I joined three of my former students in making presentations at the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law’s 13th annual colloquium at Atma Jaya University. The theme of this year colloquium was “Forest and Marine Biodiversity.” In my presentation on “The Intellectual Heritage of George Perkins Marsh: Forest Preservation and the Roots of Global Environmental Law,” I explored the impact of Marsh’s 1864 book The Earth as Modified by Human Action, which helped launch a global movement to establish protected areas. Maryland 2L Renee Lani presented a paper on how the Lacey Act has been used to discourage importation of illegally harvested timber. Maryland 3L Maryann Hong discussed the impact of free trade agreements on global tobacco control efforts. Taylor Kasky (Maryland Class of 2015) considered the impact of trade liberalization on global agriculture and food security in her presentation.
Rick Beckel, a 2015 graduate of my alma mater Macalester College, who served as a Global Environmental Justice Fellow at the law school this summer, made a presentation in which he analyzed how the concept of ecosystem services can be used to enhance efforts to preserve biodiversity. The Colloquium featured several notable speakers such as former International Court of Justice Judge Christopher Weeramantry, former Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr. and current Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Antonio Benjamin.
The most stunning news of the last two weeks has been the announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Volkswagen installed software on its diesel vehicles that disabled their pollution control devices except when they were being tested. After initially acknowledging that this software was installed on 482,000 vehicles Volkswagen sold in the U.S., the company later admitted that it was installed on 11 million vehicles worldwide. This revelation led to the resignation of the company’s CEO and universal condemnation of the company. Because the Clean Air Act provides for civil penalties of $37,500 per vehicle, the fine in the U.S. alone could be as high as $18 billion. But this is clearly a case where severe criminal penalties are warranted against the executives involved in this deception, which resulted in much higher levels of pollution from vehicles Volkswagen was touting as “green diesels”. Title II of the Clean Air Act that governs mobile sources provides for civil penalties and it allows EPA to apply an administrative penalty of up to $200,000 that can be levied in a greater amount with the consent of the Attorney General. The catch-all criminal penalty provisions of §113 do not specifically refer to violations by mobile sources, but they cover making false material statements, representations or certifications.
Last week Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the U.S. On September 24 Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Quoting from his encyclical Laudato Si he called “for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” He expressed the conviction “that we can make a difference and . . . that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play.” President Obama hosted a state dinner for Xi Jinping on September 25. The Chinese President announced that China would establish a nationwide cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, based on the seven pilot emissions trading programs that the country has established in major Chinese cities.
In a study published in the Journal Nature on September 16, a group of epidemiologists estimates that outdoor air pollution, primarily PM2.5, causes 3.3 million premature deaths worldwide annually. J. Lelieveld, J.S. Evans, M. Fnais, D. Giannadaki & A. Pozzer, The Contribution of Outdoor Air Pollution Surces to Premature Mortality on a Global Scale,525 Nature 367 (2015), published online at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7569/full/nature15371.html. The scientists warn that if present trends continue 6.6 million people will die annually from air pollution by the year 2050.
On September 14 Judge Syed Mansoor Ali Shah of Pakistan’s Lahore High Court’s Green Bench found that the Pakistan government was not doing enough to combat climate change, which he described as “the most serious threat” faced by the country. He ordered all of Pakistan’s relevant ministries to appoint point persons to deal with the issue and he established a Climate Change Commission to ensure that the government implement its climate commitments. The court ruled in a public interest litigation (PIL) case brought by a farmer, Ashgar Leghari.