Columbia Law School Panel Examines Environmental Jurisprudence

“We can only make change if we all come together.”

Maliya Francis, a student at Avenues the World School in New York, made this remark in introducing “Reframing Environmental Jurisprudence towards Interconnection,” a discussion at Columbia Law School on Wednesday, September 21. Organized by the school’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and Earth Law Center, the panel addressed the future of environmental jurisprudence in a time of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Francis, a former summer intern at the Earth Law Center, highlighted the need for ‘intergenerational accountability” about climate change.

Barnard College student Renata Happle, a Liman Fellow at Yale and a former Earth Law Center intern, moderated the panel.

In her remarks, Karenna Gore, executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics, emphasized “patterns of behavior that have been enabled by laws.” Modern “megatrends” of pollution and depletion, she said, have their roots in an “underlying belief system that humans are separate and superior to nature.” This belief system, in turn, derived from a “distorted version of Christianity through the lens of empire and colonization.”

Gore noted that the Doctrine of Discovery, a shorthand term for a set of 15th-century papal bulls that legitimized European domination of the Americas, later became enshrined in American law by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).  These originally theological attitudes have become thoroughly “secularized,” she said. And the rise of Christian nationalism, which has distorted America’s political and social landscape, illustrates the “potency of this way of thinking.”

Elizabeth Dunne, director of legal advocacy at the Earth Law Center, emphasized that “the rights of nature [need] to be heard in court and other forums.” We “don’t have the legal tools that we need right now,” she said.

“Being Indigenous … is a political class,” said Paulette Jordan, the founder and chairwoman of Save the American Salmon. She celebrated “Indigenous ways of thinking” that entailed understanding how connected people are. “You don’t have to be Indigenous to be thinking indigenously.”

Columbia Law Professor Michael Gerrard sounded a somber note. The rights of nature has resonance in some countries, but not the U.S.,” he said. With the makeup of the current U.S. Supreme Court, “federal courts are not likely to be sympathetic to rights of nature.”

Environmental lawyer Janet MacGillivray, the founder and executive director of Seeding Sovereignty, noted a disturbing pattern of government “outsourcing of cleanups to the very companies doing the harm.” She was skeptical of current legal remedies: “Good luck getting an injunction; good luck enforcing an injunction,” she said.

The panelists echoed a need for change. “We need to find new ways to aid one another,” said MacGillivray. “The movement can be successful here,” said Dunne. “We need to get laws enacted.”

“We need to widen the circle of moral concern,” said Gore.