Michael Gerrard Leads New Center for Climate Change Law

Professor Michael B. Gerrard, Director of Columbia Law School’s new Center for Climate Change Law, is so passionate about environmental protection that his efforts not only involve his mind—they have engaged his nose.

“I once had my nose certified by the West Virginia Air Pollution Control Commission,” said Gerrard.  “They trained people to detect the characteristics of chemicals in the air.  If I smelled something terrible, I would call them and they would investigate.” 

Gerrard grew up in Charleston on the banks of the Kanawha River, heavily polluted by nearby manufacturing facilities like Union Carbide.  Growing up surrounded by hazy air and odorous water inspired Gerrard to spend the rest of his life advocating for protecting the environment.  

Over forty years later, Gerrard is now lauded as one of the world’s leading environmental lawyers.  He recently joined Columbia Law School’s faculty as professor of professional practice and director of the new Center for Climate Change Law.  The Center represents a major initiative by Columbia Law School to advance an effective legal response to climate change, and push forward the requisite changes in behavior of government, corporations, non-profits and individuals.

The Center will provide the framework to examine and shape environmental regulations and train future leaders.

“Domestic and international policy related to climate change and energy independence is rising to the top of the global agenda,” said David M. Schizer, dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “Mike Gerrard’s unparalleled experience in advancing environmental law to mitigate climate change adds depth to our scholarship in this area.”

Gerrard earned his B.A. from Columbia College in 1972 and his J.D. as a Root Tilden Scholar from New York University School of Law in 1978, and since then has worked on the cutting edge of environmental law.  After 9/11, Silverstein Properties consulted Gerrard as an environmental guide to help rebuild the towers.  He helped stop the building of a Donald Trump luxury golf course where pesticides threatened to contaminate nearby drinking water, and represented the Metropolitan Museum of Art in battling neighbors over building a new exhibition space.  Gerrard has spent the past 14 years at Arnold & Porter, most recently as managing partner of the 110-attorney New York office and partner in its Environmental Practice Group.

Gerrard is author or editor of seven books, including Global Climate Change and U.S. Law. Two of his books were named “Best Law Book of the Year” by the Association of American Publishers. He has been an environmental law columnist for the New York Law Journal since 1986. He formerly chaired the American Bar Association’s 10,000-member Section of Environment, Energy and Resources.

He previously served as an adjunct professor at Columbia, and has taught at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and NYU Law School.  In his current position at Columbia Law School, Gerrard teaches courses and seminars on environmental law, where he is already struck by his students’ enthusiasm and sophistication.  “It’s their future at stake.  Many students are seeking to devote their career to environmental law.  It’s gratifying to help them in that quest.”

Gerrard clarifies that there is no coherent body of law that comprises climate change law. It is mostly a subset of environmental law, but extends to include other areas of law such as energy, corporate, securities, real estate, property, international trade, intellectual property, tax, energy, human rights, contracts, criminal, and others.

As for aligning his personal choices with his professional stance, Gerrard states that he’s “not a complete ascetic,” but undertakes an arduous mass transit commute daily from his Chappaqua home to Manhattan, one that involves four modes of transportation: a short drive to the train station, a train ride, a cross town bus, and then a walk to campus.  He turns off lights—all compact fluorescent bulbs—when he leaves a room, tries to eat less meat, and drinks from a reusable water bottle.  He notes that mode of transportation is the single most important factor in an individual’s carbon footprint.

The Center’s launch is timely, given President Obama’s new directives on environmental standards.  Gerrard has high hopes and expectations for the new administration.  “There have been no major environmental laws passed in the U.S. since the 1990.  In the ‘70s, the U.S. was the leader of modern environmental legislation.  In the last decade or so, Europe has surged ahead and is now the global pacesetter.  I hope that President Obama’s recent statements on the environment signal an abrupt reversal of this.”

Gerrard has great visions for the future.  He hopes the Center will be a focus for legal innovation in the climate change arena.  As for global warming, Gerrard would like to see a global agreement under which all the developed and developing nations work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There’s so much inertia in the climate system that things will get worse before they get better.  I think they can get better.  It’s not to say I’m confident they will, but I’m hopeful.”

One symbol of this hope is his very own Kanawha River.  He recently returned to his hometown for a high school reunion, and was delighted to see that the river is now clean, and people are fishing and swimming in it. 

“It shows that the Clean Water Act really works,” says Gerrard with conviction.  When asked if he would be willing to stand behind his words and eat some fish from the Kanawha himself, Gerrard chuckles.  “Maybe.  I’d like to see some more studies first.”