This weekend the Cornell Law School hosted students, professionals and academics to discuss the role the law can play in achieving sustainable development. The event, “Defining Sustainable Development: Land Use, Climate Change and Water Resources,” was held at Myron Taylor Hall and was organized by the Environmental Law Society and the Development-Related Outreach Program for Sustainability.
The first of the two speakers featured on Friday was Roger Martella ’92, former general counsel to the Environmental Protection Agency. Martella served as chief legal advisor to the EPA in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA, which determined that the Clean Air Act gave the EPA the authority to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide and other green house gases. Martella, however, argued that the EPA should not have such responsibilities.
Liz Leaderman law organized the conference. She spoke positively about the academic value of Martella’s controversial experience and affiliations. “I liked Martella’s optimistic view,” she said. “I think his take was most interesting because he was a Bush appointee.”
Leaderman acknowledged that many people link the Bush Administration to “anti-environmental” policies. However, she countered this argument, adding that Martella’s speech, in which he argued fervently in support of environmental innovations, “showed that environmental issues [are] more than good and bad.”
In his presentation, Martella identified the current trend in environmental law as the “second generation” of environmentalism. “We are more focused on [preparing for] the future as opposed to cleaning up the past,” Martella said. “We’re each coming to appreciate that environmental preservation and sustainability require much more than government action — it requires us to turn off our lights, program our thermostats and realize that we all contribute [to the environment].”
In addition, Martella spoke about his work with President-elect Barack Obama aimed at curbing the proliferation of Chinese toys tainted with lead paint. However, Martella promoted a relatively passive and proactive approach in dealing with China’s burgeoning environmental problems. He identified a number of analogies between present-day China and the United States during its period of rapid industrialism in the early 20th century. Martella observed that the U.S.’s environmental policy has been several decades in development, and that China is still many years away.
Martella pointed to public support as the single most important factor motivating progress in environmental legislation, but he cited China’s state-controlled media as a challenge in creating a large-scale movement. Martella currently lectures on environmental law at Wuhan University and Tsinghua University in China, and he is working with the Chinese government to develop a framework for environmental laws. However, he favors a more patient approach, in which China can pick up on environmental legislation “when they are ready.”
The second key speaker of the day was Shelley Poticha, president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a company that focuses on achieving sustainability through public transit and urban planning. Poticha presented a copious supply of statistics that demonstrated that accessibility, speed and breadth were the most important qualities of sustainable transit. Furthermore, she delivered an optimistic but qualified view on transit in America.
Poticha identified a positive paradigm shift. “Once upon a time, riding public transit was the last option. You only rode transit when you had absolutely no other choice … what we see now are ‘riders of choice,’” she said. Along with an increasing number of riders, Poticha observed that public transportation is becoming more of a priority in peoples’ lives.
She said that “walkable urbanism,” or urban life that is fully accessible without an automobile, will be a priority for at least one-third of the American housing market by 2030.
Leaderman echoed Poticha’s sentiments. “As a young professional, I’m shopping for an apartment based on public transit.”
Poticha said that it was as important to challenge the way people build cities as it is to change the way people think. She said that it should be a priority for transit to displace personal automobiles as being “attractive, fun, hip and easy.” However, she also pointed out that universities also have a role to play.
The University currently provides all new students with free OmniRide bus passes to ride the TCAT. However, when Poticha realized that these passes were not included in tuition for all students, she responded in shock.
“Most major universities provide a transit pass with tuition … [the policy] creates huger ridership and lowers costs,” Poticha said, “Stanford is a model in this field.” According to Poticha, Stanford University provides transit passes to all its students and helps pay for area transit costs. As well, the University is in the process of demolishing its parking lots.
However, it is unlikely that the University currently has the resources to embark on such an initiative in light of its new conservative spending policy that President David Skorton outlined two weeks ago.
The rest of the weekend featured a number of panel discussions on food, water, land use, ethics, development and regional and local government, including a contentious debate on biofuels. In addition, Prof. Richard Allmendinger, earth and atmospheric sciences, discussed the relationship between the energy crisis and the climate crisis. Leaderman was pleased with the weekend, saying, “The rest of the conference went very, very well.”