October 17, 2019

Climate Change Takes Center Stage

A policy hot topic in DC and at the ABA

As drastic weather and natural disasters continue to dominate today’s headlines, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for the impacts of climate change must take on an even greater urgency than before, according to a policy adopted by the ABA in August. Just last week, we were reminded of the toll brought by changing weather patterns when electric power was purposely cut off to approximately 850,000 homes in California experiencing extreme drought and high winds to mitigate the risk of massive fires starting by downed power lines.

The ABA has a long history of urging the legal community and others to think and act in a more environmentally responsible manner. Starting with policies dating back to 1991, the ABA has long believed that climate change must be addressed in the context of sustainable development. Heeding its own advice, the ABA has sought out environmentally sound buildings for its headquarter offices in Chicago and Washington, DC, which are designated by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as Gold- and Silver-certified buildings, respectively.

The ABA’s new climate change policy urges governments at all levels to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to “net zero or below as soon as possible, consistent with the latest peer-reviewed science” and to “contribute the U.S. fair share to holding the increase in the global average temperature to the lowest possible increase above pre-industrial levels.” 

The term “net zero” derives from the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change, which created an international framework to address climate change. The United States ratified the Convention in 1992. Carbon dioxide, the most important climate change pollutant, can be removed from the atmosphere by a variety of natural and other processes that are collectively defined as sinks. The “balance” of emissions and removals by sinks results in net zero emissions.

Building on the climate change progress made by the UN Convention, in 2015, the parties to the Convention signed the Paris Agreement, which called for net zero emissions and set a timeline for its accomplishment. In June 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, but the earliest that the United States can withdraw is November 4, 2020, one day after the 2020 presidential election.

The ABA resolution urges the U.S. to remain an active party to the climate change convention and to ratify treaties and other agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

It also encourages Congress to enact market-based legal mechanisms to remove barriers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and urges lawyers to engage in pro bono activities to address climate change.

While there has been a shift in Congress toward greater recognition that climate change is real and a major threat to our economy and national security, there is scant agreement on how to proceed. On January 9, 2019, Speaker Pelosi created the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis with authority to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, and innovations to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis. The Select Committee has held a series of investigative hearings, the latest of which occurred in September 2019 and focused on developing and implementing domestic technologies to reduce industrial emissions.

Congress also continues to debate several measures designed to address various aspects of climate change, including S. 2302 (Barrasso, R-WY), the “America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019,” which was approved unanimously this summer by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This legislation, which has significant bipartisan support, would authorize transportation funding for numerous environmental projects, including electric vehicle charging stations, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly street design, reduction of diesel emissions in ports, and infrastructure that is resilient to floods and heat waves.

The ABA will continue to monitor and analyze climate change proposals, and weigh in as needed to help advance legislation consistent with our policy goals.

Follow us @ABAGrassroots to learn more developments as they occur.