Faculty Focus

Warming Up

Michael Gerrard

Professor Michael Gerrard brings his world-renowned expertise in environmental law to a new Columbia center on global climate change.

By Jennifer V. Hughes

Winter 2009

Environmental law expert Michael B. Gerrard is no stranger when it comes to grappling with long odds.

In the 1970s and ’80s, he was a key member of the litigation team fighting the massive Westway highway project, which would have landfilled a large portion of the Hudson River alongside Manhattan.

“[The project] was endorsed by a series of governors, mayors, both senators, the [U.S.] president,” recalls Gerrard, who joined the Law School faculty in January. After a 13-year battle, Gerrard’s work helped kill the proposal in 1985, thus protecting the river and making hundreds of millions of dollars available for subways and buses. It was a win for conservationists and mass transit advocates alike. More than 15 years later, Gerrard won another high-profile case involving a proposed golf course in Westchester County. His adversary was Donald Trump, whose project, nearby residents feared, would threaten their town’s drinking water. A few years later, Gerrard helped apply green building principles to the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. And those are just a few of the hundreds of complex environmental law matters Gerrard has handled.

“Mike is tireless as a scholar and a public interest environmental advocate, as well as a practitioner,” says Pace Law School Professor Nicholas Robinson ’70, who has known Gerrard since the 1970s. “He’s earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading environmental law specialists.”

Now Gerrard is about to take on his biggest challenge yet—developing legal structures for addressing global climate change. This past December, he was named as a professor of professional practice and as the director of Columbia Law School’s groundbreaking new Center for Climate Change Law (CCCL). The center will develop model laws, participate in rulemaking, conduct research, produce books, and train the next generation of environmental lawyers.

“Action is absolutely needed now,” says Gerrard, who most recently was managing partner of the New York office of Arnold & Porter, where he has practiced for 14 years.

The CCCL will also work in conjunction with other Columbia programs, like The Earth Institute, as well as U.S. agencies and NGOs.

“It is especially important to train students from abroad so they can play a role in their own countries,” says Gerrard, who has written or edited seven environmental law texts, two of which were named Best Law Book of the Year by the Association of American Publishers.

Gerrard says he has seen the focus in environmental law shift over the years from air and water pollution in the 1970s to hazardous waste in the ’90s. “Changes in environmental law have always been driven by scientific developments,” he says. “Science discovers a threat, and, hopefully, legislatures and the courts then take action.” The latest frontier is climate change, arguably the most pressing environmental law concern in the field and one that Gerrard says presents difficult challenges.

“There are going to be complicated regulatory structures that not only did not exist when I graduated law school, but that don’t even exist today,” he notes. “And they are likely to rival the tax code in complexity.”

In the coming years, the U.S. will have to craft new environmental laws and re-examine agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

“I think it was a global tragedy that the U.S. disengaged from the Kyoto process in 2001, and it’s going to be very difficult to make up for lost time,” Gerrard notes.

Dealing with issues like Kyoto will be a key part of the CCCL’s mission.

“The decisions that have to be made will have an enormous impact on the future of the planet,” Gerrard says. “And we are hoping to have an influence on those decisions.”

Jennifer V. Hughes is a freelance journalist who regularly writes for The New York Times.

Illustration by John S. Dykes