State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Authors of Clean Air Act to Teach New Law Class

Leon G. Billings (left) and Thomas C. Jorling (right) will be teaching the Origins of Environmental Law class in the M.S. in Sustainability Management Program this fall.
Leon G. Billings (left) and Thomas C. Jorling (right) will be teaching the Origins of Environmental Law course in the M.S. in Sustainability Management Program this fall.

By Hayley Martinez

In the 1970s, over the course of a single decade, the U.S. Congress enacted a series of environmental laws that defined the direction and character of environmental policy in the United States and globally. This fall, Columbia University is offering a new class dedicated to the process that led to these seminal laws, taught by the writers of the legislation themselves.

The Earth Institute, the School of Continuing Education and the School of International and Public Affairs are excited to offer a unique class on the Origins of Environmental Law: Regulation and Evolution. This class, only offered in fall 2014, will be taught by Leon Billings and Thomas Jorling, the senior Democratic and Republican staff members who led the Senate environment subcommittee which originated and developed major environmental legislation of the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund). Students will have a unique opportunity to learn about the historical, legislative and political process that led to the implementation of these laws.

“Sitting with the people who actually wrote these laws with their own pens—this was all well before there were personal computers—will be a wonderful experience for our students,” said Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of Law and Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “It’s as if we could bring Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to our Constitutional Law class. The laws our guests wrote are not just artifacts—they are the words that are still on the books and that today’s lawyers and judges are struggling with. I myself have a long list of words, phrases and commas that I want to ask about.”

This class is particularly important when thinking about the nature of politics today—the 2013 government shutdown and the inability of Congress to agree on virtually anything. This is in stark contrast to the 1970s, when Congress worked across the aisle to enact a series of environmental laws that chartered a new course for our future and that have shaped vast improvements in the nation’s environment—and continue to do so. Yet, no new piece of major environmental legislation has been enacted since the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act—almost 25 years ago. What has changed since then?

“We are thrilled to bring Professors Billings and Jorling to Columbia to access their knowledge on this critical period of the history of U.S. environmental policy,” said Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute and professor of professional practice in the faculty of international and public affairs. “A key role of government in the emerging field of sustainability management is to develop effective and efficient environmental policies. We need to update our environmental laws and bring them into this century. My hope is that by looking back to our successful past, we can relearn how to face our environmental future.”

This class will provide some insight into the legislative and human dynamic in the 1970s versus today, and discuss how public policy shapes how environments and organizations are managed. Students will have a chance to examine the critical issues that policymakers face both past and present. They will also look at the role of the media, lobbyists and administration staff, and examine issues of partisanship and economics in the context of lawmaking. Students will benefit from the insight of Billings and Jorling, who can give firsthand knowledge about the structure and personalities of the members of the Senate environment subcommittee at that time. What was it that made that time so unique for policymaking? Is it possible to do it again?

The class will cover everything from early environmental federalism to the nature of environmental politics today. The course will be filmed and turned into a documentary about the success of environmental policymaking during the 1970s and the political and social dynamics of the era.

In addition to registered students, this course will be open to the public as a lecture series. Guests each week will join students in the class for the lecture and discussion. Seating is limited and RSVP is required.

Lecture Schedule:

The entire course is available for viewing here:

Introduction to the Course and Early Environmental Legislation, Pre-1969
September 3, 2014
Professors Thomas Jorling and Leon Billings are the two senior majority and minority staff members who led the Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution which originated and developed The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other major environmental legislation. In this first class in the lecture series, Billings and Jorling give an introduction to the class and an overview of the legislative process in the United States. They provide a historical and political context for early environmental legislation in the 1960s and 70s.

The Structure and Role of Congress in Environmental Policy
September 10, 2014
This class provides context for environmental policy by taking a closer look at Congress – examining the senate committee structure and discussing individuals on the 1969 Senate Public Works Committee. They detail the evolving role of committees in the U.S. legislative process and the legal precedent for federal water regulation.

From NEPA to the Clean Air Act
September 17, 2014
This class examines the context for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), looking at the process for how the act was introduced, modified and ultimately implemented. It then goes into the history of air pollution control legislation leading up to the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act: Who, What, Why?
September 24, 2014
This class starts the conversation on the Clean Air Act, looking at the political context, the first Earth Day, and the role of the Environmental Protection Agency. Billings and Jorling discuss the purpose of the Clean Air Act to achieve the goal of public health.

The Clean Air Act: The Floor Debate
October 1, 2014
This class provides a more in-depth look at the Clean Air Act, looking at specific provisions as well as state implementation plans.The Professors discuss how certain policy provisions were constructed to promote broader goals, like public health and national coverage.

The Water Quality Improvement Act
October 8, 2014
Jorling discusses the origin and evolution of the Water Quality Improvement Act (a precursor to the Clean Water Act) to look at the dynamic political process in implementing and enforcing environmental law. He also discusses the importance of words in policy and legislation.

Science and Impact of the Clean Air Act
October 15, 2014
Billings and Jorling further discuss the Clean Air Act, looking at its scientific and technological basis, as well as the impact it had on American industries, using the automobile industry as an example.

The Clean Air Act & The Clean Water Act
October 22, 2014
Billings and Jorling discuss the enforcement provisions of the Clean Air Act and the impact of citizen suits and public interest groups. They touch upon the role of the CAA in combating climate change today, before introducing the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act: Development and Implementation
October 29, 2014
The Professors discuss the evolution of the Clean Water Act, and the response from the public and private sectors. This discussion builds upon the political context discussed in previous classes as well as the structural relationship between federal and state government. Finally, they discuss the scientific and legislative process leading to specific provisions of the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act: Conference with the House Public Works Committee
November 5, 2014
This class looks at the political context of developing the Clean Water Act, as well as the legislative progression of the act through the House Public Works Committee. Professors explore engineering challenges of the law, its impact on cities, and the difficulty of national implementation.

Provisions in the Clean Water Act
November 12, 2014
This session looks at provisions in the Clean Water Act that were points of dispute for Congress. The class continues to discuss the science and engineering behind the Clean Water Act and how these factors impacted the writing of the law.

The Clean Water Act Today
November 19, 2014
Billings and Jorling discuss the impact of the Clean Water Act on the private sector. They also look at the state of environmental legislation and environmental politics today, ending with some predictions about the future.

Congress Today
December 3, 2014
To end the lecture series, the Professors lead a comparative discussion about Congress, the role of committees in the legislative process, the role of media in politics, and the role of campaign finance and fundraising in environmental policy.

Background on Leon G. Billings:

  • Previous member of the Maryland House of Delegates.
  • Previous chief of staff for Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.
  • Previous staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution.
  • Served as chair of the National Conference of State Legislators Environment Committee.
  • Winner of the AMSA Environment Award and the CARB Haagen-Smith Clean Air Award for Environmental Policy.

Background on Thomas C. Jorling:

  • Previous commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • Previous professor and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.
  • Served as minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works, including the Environment Subcommittee.
  • Winner of the Keystone Center Leadership in Industry Award and the Environmental Action Coalition Green Star Award.

For students: (ENVP U6236/SUMA 86236) This class occurs every Wednesday throughout the semester, from 11 a.m. – 12:50 p.m., in the International Affairs Building, Room 407. To register: (1) Join the waitlist in SSOL; (2) Submit an application: For questions, please contact Hayley Martinez at

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments