Peter Lehner ’84 Highlights Link Between Food and Climate

Peter Lehner ’84, pictured here as recipient of the Public Interest Achievement Award, presented to the environmental lawyer by the Law School's Public Interest Law Foundation in 2014.
Earthjustice senior attorney Peter Lehner ’84, one of the world’s most accomplished environmental lawyers, illuminated the urgent challenges America’s wasteful, meat-obsessed food and agricultural system creates for the future of climate change during an Oct. 25 talk at Columbia Law School titled “Cows, Corn, and Climate: It’s More Than Just Carbon.”
Lehner founded and now directs Earthjustice’s sustainable food and agriculture program, which develops legal strategies to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms caused by how societies produce food, and what foods they subsidize and consume. Absent large-scale reductions in meat consumption in the U.S. and Europe—not to mention fundamental changes in how cattle use land and how their waste is disposed—rising temperature projections for 2050 will “literally be off the chart,” he cautioned.
“Right now what is causing the biggest threat to human health, both here and abroad, is our food system, our diets,” Lehner told students during the event presented by the Environmental Law Society and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. America’s agricultural practices are having “an enormous impact on water, land use, soil, air, and climate,” he said, noting our food system alone accounts for 21 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The nation’s largest nonprofit environmental law organization, Earthjustice focuses on enforcing the United States’ strong environmental laws and finding long-term and sustainable solutions in the areas of food, farming, animal agriculture, and climate change. Long ignored, environmental law pertaining to the agricultural industry is much weaker than it is in the energy industry, Lehner said. Rather than drive massive legal reform, Lehner hopes his research and advocacy will provide “nudges” to politicians, farmers, and consumers to foster new healthier habits, much like positive changes the energy industry has undergone in recent years.
Lehner’s proposed food industry changes include decreasing the massive amount of money America pumps into grain subsidies, which result in financial hardship for farmers, obesity among consumers, and rising levels of land, water, and atmospheric pollution caused by cows’ diets and waste products. Among the agricultural solutions Lehner listed were the use of big data to yield more crops while using less fertilizer, resulting in less nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, and the implementation of more ecologically friendly systems, such as eliminating till, to protect soil.
“What we’re focusing on, even more than the impact of climate on food, is the impact of food on climate change, and that’s rarely talked about,” said Lehner, who sits on the Law School’s Environmental Law Advisory Board.
Lehner received the Public Interest Law Foundation’s Public Interest Achievement Award in 2014 in celebration of his outstanding environmental law career. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Lehner served as executive director for the National Resource Defense Council from 2007 to 2015 and as chief of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office from 1996 to 2006.
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Posted November 1, 2016