Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How can the Endangered Species Act best fulfill its mission amid changing regulations?
Conservationist groups in Colorado have likely secured enough signatures to force a statewide ballot measure next November about whether to reintroduce gray wolves to public lands. Largely due to fears about the threat they posed to local livestock, the gray wolf was effectively eliminated in the continental US by 1995. Because of conservation efforts, there are now around 5,000 across many Western states, but none in Colorado due to the state’s ban. While not yet formally implemented, the current administration had announced plans earlier this year to remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list; this incident relates more broadly to the administration's array of regulatory changes that affect how the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will be implemented. Conservationists have criticized some of these changes, while the administration contends that they—including a new rule that allows economic factors to be mentioned in listing decisions—will not hinder government efforts to safeguard endangered species.
An expert panel of journalists, researchers, and public officials discussed the implications of this administration’s ESA reforms at “Implementing Changes to the ESA: What Happens Next?,” an RFF Live event held this week. Panelists discussed ways that the relevant agencies could best implement the proposed reforms without alienating key stakeholders or reneging on their commitment to protect America’s most vulnerable species. Reflecting on the central dilemma the administration faces in its attempt to overhaul the decades-old ESA, RFF Fellow Rebecca Epanchin-Niell asked the panel, “How can rules be designed in ways that actually promote and incentivize conservation?”
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How can climate change litigation affect corporate behavior and limit environmental harm?
ExxonMobil was found not guilty of fraud this week in the second climate change trial ever held in the United States. The New York Attorney General’s office claimed that ExxonMobil had deliberately misled investors about the financial ramifications of climate change and thus owed $1.6 billion in restitution to shareholders. But in a stinging 55-page ruling, New York state judge Barry Ostranger said this argument was “eviscerated on cross-examination and by ExxonMobil’s expert witnesses.” While this lawsuit primarily involved a niche state law about securities fraud, the ruling has potential implications for a similar lawsuit against ExxonMobil filed in Massachusetts state court and could be a defining piece of jurisprudence as more companies face legal scrutiny for their roles in perpetuating global climate change. The case might also suggest that current laws cannot neatly assess the true cost of climate change: Ostranger cautioned that “nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change… [T]his is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”
On this week’s episode of Resources Radio, Alice Hill—a former federal prosecutor and special assistant to President Obama on national security, climate change, and climate resiliency—provided her perspective on how litigation might play a role in tackling climate change. Hill draws from research completed for her new book, Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, which she co-authored with Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, the former deputy assistant secretary for energy and environment at the Treasury Department. She argued: “If there is a strong avenue for finding liability, it can dramatically alter how risks are perceived. There's a class of cases that are working their way through the courts now where litigants are seeking recovery [for climate change] … I'm not sure those lawsuits will be successful … But the area that I know will be active is individual decisions of adaptation. And if we have findings from the court that it's, for example, negligent for an engineer or an architect to design a building in a floodplain without taking into account either flood mitigation issues or advising the client, if there is a finding of liability, that will spur a huge change in behavior across the board. Because other engineers aren't going to want to be found liable." Listen to the podcast to hear more suggestions from Hill and Martinez-Diaz about spurring large-scale action in climate change mitigation and resilience.
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Are sustainable agricultural practices becoming more compatible with agricultural industry interests?
This week, POLITICO offered a glimpse into a closed-door meeting that convened agricultural leaders, chief executives of major food companies, and environmental groups to discuss how the agricultural industry can combat climate change. Soil health emerged as an important topic: Keith Berns, a seed company executive, said, “we can argue about who caused [climate change]... To me the solution is still the same. The solution is to put the carbon back in the soil.” This sentiment is echoed by the growing number of farmers using low- and no-till methods—in 2017, conservation tillage methods were used on nearly 75 percent of US cropland. Cutting back on tillage and using other soil health strategies like planting cover crops or diversifying crop rotation can boost farms’ profitability, while still improving soil quality, cutting down emissions, and sequestering carbon.
RFF and Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability are hosting a related upcoming event, “Healthy Soils for a Healthier Planet,” on Dec. 17, 2019, which will provide an overview of the current health of US soils, offer evidence-based strategies for improving soil quality, and explore why soil health is an important environmental and agricultural concern. A panel of experts, moderated by RFF Senior Advisor Ann Bartuska, will share perspectives from various sectors—government, industry, and the conservation community—on how practices, technologies, and policies related to soil health are evolving. Click here to learn more about the event.
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