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Climate Change and the Law

Climate change is quickly becoming the hottest environmental topic of our time — and also one of the most political. This article discusses climate change law, including the legal implications of climate change policies such as the Green New Deal. It also addresses how international law affects climate change policies and action.

Table of Contents:

What Is Climate Change?

According to NASA, climate change refers to long-term change in weather patterns on Earth. Since the early 1990s, greenhouse gas levels in the Earth's atmosphere have risen, trapping heat and causing the Earth's average surface temperature to increase.

When the warming is caused by humans, it is referred to by scientists as global warming. Natural-occurring processes can also contribute to climate change, which is one of the factors that makes the issue of climate change so complex.

According to a 2019 federal report, the amount of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere reached its highest level in 800,000 years.

The Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change

Public opinion has developed significantly on the issue over the past several years, with many Americans showing more concern about climate change and humans' role.

According to a 2019 report by Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who believe climate change is a major threat to the country increased from 40% in 2013 to 59% in 2018.

Additionally, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported at the end of 2019 that 73% of Americans think climate change is happening, which is an increase from 63% of Americans in 2015.

Today, a majority of registered voters are in favor of specific policies that reduce carbon pollution and advance clean energy. Young people, especially, are pushing for action.

Globally, a majority of people around the world believe that climate change is happening and that people are at least partly responsible. Most people also believe they will feel the effects of climate change, with either a large or moderate impact on their lives, and some people around the world even believe it will make humans extinct.

Climate Change Law and Policy

A 2018 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained that time is running out for world governments to act on implementing major climate change policy to prevent near-irreversible damage. The panel of climate experts concluded that the world has until 2032 to prevent a 2-degree Celsius warming, which would result in dire consequences, including more natural disasters, droughts, floods, and heat waves.

Not everyone accepts the conclusions made in the IPCC's report. Climate change denial groups and individuals make arguments that carbon dioxide is only a trace gas in the atmosphere and can only have a small impact on the climate. Some believe global warming stopped recently, and others assertthat global cooling is actually taking place. However, 97% of actively publishing climate scientists believe that humans are causing global warming, according to NASA.

The Trump Administration on Climate Change

In the U.S., the Trump administration has taken the position that humans have not caused climate change. Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University reports that the Trump administration has taken steps to remove 137 federal climate regulations since taking office. Notable actions related to climate change laws and policy include:

What Is the Green New Deal?

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markeyhe proposed a package of legislation called the Green New Deal, which provides an overall set of goals to get the world to net-zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner, in the U.S.

The Green New Deal's primary focus is to quickly change the country over to clean energy, though it does not outline a policy on doing so, just end goals and guiding principles. The plan's priorities include reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, housing, manufacturing, and agriculture.

The proposal also prioritizes assisting workers affected by the shift to clean energy to ensure a "fair and just transition," and focusing on groups that have been most affected by climate change in the past and moving forward.

In addition to the environmental goals, the Green New Deal also prioritizes universal healthcare, stronger labor union rights, affordable housing, and better paying jobs.

The proposal has been met with support from many democrats, though some say that while they agree with the principles, the proposal sets unreasonable expectations. Many republicans do not support the Green New Deal, calling it radical and socialist.

The Green New Deal proposal originated from a grassroots, youth-led movement of the same moniker, which gained publicity in 2018 after protests in Washington. The proposal is a nod to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which involved public works projects that helped the nation get back on its feet after the Great Depression.

Climate Change Laws Around the World

Obviously, climate change is a global issue that cannot be solved by just one country or a few countries (though it is clear that the U.S., China, and the European Union contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions). Curbing emissions will require governments to agree to take action together.

The Paris Agreement

In 2015, world leaders met in Paris and reached an agreement for each country to make voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions in effort to avoid a two-degree warming. Because the commitments were voluntary, it was up to countries to hold themselves accountable for reaching the goals.

Since then, most of the 188 countries that participated in the Paris Agreement are not on track to meet the commitments they made in Paris. President Trump has initiated paperwork to pull the U.S. out of the agreement, effective November 2020. There is concern that the Paris Agreement could fail in the 2020s, even if the U.S. elects a president who recommits the U.S. to the agreement.

Currently, there is no international regulatory agency that can force a country to comply with climate change agreements.

International Climate Change Laws

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 and is the the main international forum on climate change. There are 195 member nations, which meet to negotiate issues including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change, reporting emissions on a national level, and financing climate change initiatives in developing countries.

In 1997, UNFCCC negotiations resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, which set the goal for 37 industrialized countries to cut emissions for the six main greenhouse gases to certain levels between 2008 and 2012. The goal was largely accomplished, but offset by emissions increases from other industrialized counties such as China. Fewer countries have committed to the second Kyoto Protocol, which sets goals for 2013 to 2020.

According to the largest database of climate change policy, the number of global climate change laws and policies has increased by 20 times since 1997 and is reaching 2,000, globally. See an updated list of policies and much more helpful information on global policy on the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment's website.

South Korea is currently the country with the most climate change laws and policies, with 23 laws, five policies, and 18 climate targets.

The United Kingdom's approach to climate change is outlined in the Climate Change Act 2008. The Act places requirements on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels — net zero — by the year 2050 through legally-binding carbon budgets. It also sets preparations for dealing with the effects of climate change.

Looking to the Future

There are many ideas that have been proposed at all levels — from individual to global — to help address the climate change crisis. It is expected that climate change laws will become a focal point in future elections and policy discussions.

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