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The President’s Climate Action Plan – What’s In it for Tomorrow’s Lawyers?

In June 2013 President Obama became the first U.S. president to issue a climate action plan. Needless to say it got a lot of press. Some climate change policy watchers panned it as nothing new (meaning no new proposals for regulation); others condemned it as, well, nothing new (meaning it keeps all the old proposals for regulation); and some praised it as visionary. That’s not my topic for this post. I want to ask what the Plan, whether it’s anything new or not, means for lawyers of the future.

I hope not to sound perverse in suggesting that there is opportunity for lawyers in climate change, but of course there is. Change of any kind often creates opportunities for lawyers, especially the ones who think about it before it happens. So I ask, what’s in the Plan for lawyers, particularly tomorrow’s lawyers–the kind I care about here at Law 2050?

A study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council claims that the Plan–specifically, the part of the Plan that proposes to regulate carbon emissions–will create jobs. Alas, nowhere in that study does it mention new jobs for lawyers. Can it be that there will be no new opportunities for lawyers? I doubt it. Rather, to paraphrase Mr. McGuire from The Graduate: I want to say three words to you. Just three words: Energy and Land Use. OK, I guess that’s four words, but let me get to the point.

As with most climate change policy discourse, there are two main components to the Plan: (1) mitigation, which is how to reduce climate change, primarily by reducing carbon emissions (and/or increasing sinks), and (2) adaptation, which is how to respond to the climate change we will experience regardless of (1), particularly given that (1) isn’t exactly going gangbusters. So if you step back and look for the legal action in the Plan, Energy and Land Use should hit you in the face.

ENERGY: The Plan’s mitigation component is largely about energy policy. In fact, it may be the closest we’ve come to having a national energy policy, ever. Most of the headings in this part of the Plan contain the word energy or are energy focused, such as:

  • cutting carbon pollution from power plants
  • promoting American leadership in renewable energy
  • accelerating clean energy permitting
  • expanding and modernizing the electric grid
  • unlocking Long-term investment in clean energy innovation
  • spurring investment in advanced fossil energy projects
  • instituting a Federal Quadrennial Energy review
  • increasing fuel economy standards
  • reducing energy bills
  • establishing a new goal for energy efficiency standards
  • reducing barriers to investment in energy efficiency

And the list goes on. Energy, Energy, Energy! Once again, Mr. McGuire said it for me: Tomorrow’s lawyers, there’s a great future in Energy Law. Think about it. Will you think about it?

LAND USE: Although more subtle in its delivery, the adaptation part of the Plan is largely about land use. In climate change policy speak, the term “resilience” is widely used to mean that we need to be better at handling effects of climate change, and a big part of that is about better planning for the built environment and its infrastructure. Plan headings that pop out in this respect include:

  • building stronger and safer communities and infrastructure
  • directing agencies to support climate-resilient investment
  • supporting communities as they prepare for climate impacts
  • boosting the resilience of buildings and infrastructure
  • rebuilding and learning from Hurricane Sandy
  • conserving land and water resources
  • maintaining agricultural sustainability
  • managing drought
  • reducing wildfire risks
  • preparing for future floods

There is more in the adaptation part, to be sure, including health, insurance, and science, but mostly its about…Land Use!   Tomorrow’s lawyers, there’s a great future in Land Use Law. Think about it. Will you think about it?


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