For over thirty years I have advocated for environmental protection as an environmental lawyer and environmental law teacher. As a proud environmentalist, I have always tried to be generally aware of my footprint on the world ecosystem. But about a decade ago it dawned on me that some of the regional ecosystem based environmental battles I have been fighting have spanned decades – these include the battle to limit fish mortality from Hudson River power plant cooling systems and the battle to limit New York City’s discharge of warm turbid water in a fabled trout stream. The impacts of climate change that we will see in coming decades suddenly seemed less remote. I began to worry that as environmental advocates we have all been so focused on individual ecosystems that we ignore the impact of our actions on the global climate system, which will overwhelm the local ecosystems.
Environmental law is a system for internalizing the costs of adverse environmental harms – the polluter pays principle. I routinely teach that it is irresponsible for industrial concerns to harm ecosystems for profit, and that industry excuses such as “everyone does it” or “my pollution just by itself would not cause a problem” is not an excuse for avoiding responsibility. The system of environmental regulation seeks to internalize these collective harms to those responsible.
I believe that those excuses don’t work for individuals either. Everyone should look at their own carbon footprint and decide how it fits into a carbon-limited world. When I looked at my own footprint, the big carbon footprint items were clear – air travel, home heating and electric commuting to work. I set about reducing each of those to a level commensurate with response to the climate crisis. I was already bicycling and kayaking to work regularly; substituting the bus and (eventually) and electric motorcycle and car, together with a RE contract, eliminated that element of my footprint. Setting my thermostat a bit lower and adding a woodstove to my home has reduced my heating footprint.
I found it easy to give up most professional and pleasure air travel. I am lucky to be tenured and have no need to further establish myself professionally. I have been to some great places by plane and by sailboat, with no more than one roundtrip plane flight per year.
I have been blogging about leading a rich and rewarding low-carbon lifestyle at www.livesustainablynow.com.
Karl Coplan is Professor of Law and the Director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.