Debating Climate Change Litigation with Former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton

Posted by NRS on Apr 23, 2019 11:38:41 AM


On November 8, 2018, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Attorney General of Colorado, Hon. Gale Norton visited Texas A&M Law to participate in a friendly debate with Professor Gabriel Eckstein over current case law surrounding the hot political topic of climate change.

Norton began by discussing three types of cases attempting to address the issue of climate change: those involving tortious claims filed by local governments, those with a look toward securities law filed by the New York Attorney General’s office, and those based on a constitutional argument raising the public trust doctrine.IMG_4362

After citing examples of each type, Norton highlighted general challenges in creating case law relevant to climate change policy, such as holding a few defendants liable for impacts occurring beyond the scope of any one particular entity or event contributing to climate change, causation being too attenuated in general, and the idea that public policy concerns should be addressed not by the judicial branch but by other governmental branches. Norton expressed the view that litigating in courts will not effectively result in changing public policy on climate change.

While Eckstein agreed with Norton that the judicial branch may not be the ideal place for creating law and policy to combat climate change, he asserted that litigation can be a useful tool when other avenues have proved unproductive, and emphasized examples of litigation that proved effective in changing public policy.

Eckstein offered several examples demonstrating a lack of leadership and action toward climate change mitigation in the current political environment, setting the tone for his counterargument. Eckstein then provided a number of historical public policy issues that relied on judicial action when other branches of government were reluctant to take action, such as litigation surrounding the tobacco industry and public health, and litigation over civil rights and equality related to “separate but equal” segregation conditions.

Regardless of the outcome of the debate between Norton and Eckstein, attendees were certainly delighted to hear the two distinct perspectives vetted so intelligibly and passionately, and the debate left everyone with much food for thought.

The event was jointly sponsored by the Energy Law Student Association, the Federalist Society Student Association, and the NRS Program.


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Natural resources are an integral and undeniable component of modern societies globally. These resources are critical for energy, agriculture, manufacturing and economic development in general. Our natural environment is a highly complex and integrated system, and sound decision-making related to the sustainable management of natural resources and the environment requires a broad and interdisciplinary approach. Acknowledging the centrality and complexity of natural resources systems, the Natural Resources Systems (NRS) Program at Texas A&M School of Law endeavors to train and offer real world experience to students on law and policy issues related to exploitation, management and conservation, and advance research on natural resources that connects with other disciplines and with communities worldwide.

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