State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Preserving the Origins of Environmental Law for a New Generation of Leaders

In fall 2014, Columbia University, through the School of International and Public Affairs, the School of Continuing Education and the Earth Institute, offered a never-before-taught class on “The Origins of Environmental Law.” What made this class especially unique was its instructors: 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). While many courses teach the fundamentals of environmental law, Leon and Tom, in contrast, developed a course that spoke to the people and politics behind the creation of the legislation: how and why these important policies came into being.

In the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle to pass major environmental legislation. This year, students at Columbia got the opportunity to learn about this time from the people who were there – who drafted legislation and sat in senate subcommittee meetings and mark-up sessions, who wrote memos to senators analyzing and advising on issues, who listened to opposing sides, and who saw firsthand the kind of collaboration, mutual respect, and hard work that went into the making of our landmark environmental laws. Over the course of the semester, Professors Jorling and Billings looked critically at the legislative, economic, and political factors influencing the passing of these laws, as well as the role of the media, lobbyists, and significant individuals during this time. Part of the motivation behind the hard work that Jorling and Billings devoted to developing and teaching this new course is a desire to pass on their knowledge of how it was done and give hope to new generations that it is possible to tackle great challenges, build consensus and enshrine solutions in national law.

The Earth Institute is excited to present a short film (see below) featuring highlights from the course. Including interviews from Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute; Merit Janow, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; and Kristine Billmyer, Dean of the School of Continuing Education, the video provides a glimpse into the depth and scope of this important course.

In addition to registered Columbia students who took the course for credit, the class lectures were also open to the public and had a number of visitors each week. Fortunately, for those who were unable to attend, every class session was recorded and is now available on the Earth Institute website. Hours of recordings are available for anyone who is interested in learning about the nature of politics at a time when Congress was able to pass major laws in a matter of months – a stark contrast to today’s political environment.

We’ve also collected all of the course materials and made those available online. The course used a wide range of instructional material including legislative histories of bills, transcripts of closed-door mark-up meetings, and memos to then-Senator Muskie and others on a wide range of topics, from clean air and the automobile industry to solid waste regulation. This carefully curated collection of material and the course videos make for highly valuable resources for anyone interested in environmental law and policy.

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

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Paige Smith
9 years ago

It is interesting to learn that in the 1970’s republicans and democrats would work together more evenly when it came to the environmental bills. Now, we are across each other so much more. There has to be a balance, though between environment and overtaxing businesses so the economy cannot grow.