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University of Iowa News Release

 

April 17, 2009

Law professor leads initiative to protect environment for future generations

A University of Iowa law professor is spearheading an effort to make environmental rights as much a part of the legal vocabulary as economic or property rights so future generations can enjoy a safe environment.

"Our growing climate crisis demands that our laws take seriously the legal rights of children and future generations to inherit a clean, healthy and sustainable environment," says Burns Weston, professor emeritus in the UI College of Law, senior scholar of the UI Center for Human Rights and project director of the Climate Legacy Initiative (CLI). "In turn, the present generation must take legal responsibility for the ecological legacy we leave behind. It is a rank injustice to our heirs if our behavior does not change."

The CLI, a joint project of the UI Center for Human Rights and the Environmental Law Center of Vermont Law School, seeks to broaden and deepen the legal means for protecting the earth's environment for future generations. This week, it is releasing a major policy paper titled "Recalibrating the Law of Humans with the Laws of Nature: Climate Change, Human Rights, and Intergenerational Justice," authored by Weston and Tracy Bach, CLI associate director and a researcher and professor at Vermont Law School.

"The Climate Legacy Initiative's work is intended to spark public and professional discussion about how our laws can adapt to and confront the climate crisis," Weston said. "We seek a fundamental rethinking of how the law, both nationally and internationally, can be made a better steward of the environment, especially in the face of unprecedented climate change."

The CLI legal and legislative strategy will be unveiled at meetings next Thursday, April 23 of the University of Iowa Center for Human Right and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council. The ICFRC meets at noon at the Congregational Church, 30 N. Clinton St. in Iowa City. Admission is $7.50 for members, $8.50 for nonmembers.

The UI Center for Human Rights presentation begins at 8 p.m. in 1505 Seaman Center for Engineering. Admission is free.

Weston said a legal approach is just one tool in confronting this huge challenge, but it is critical.

However, he said this not a task for the law alone. "Law underwrites all we do and how we go about doing it," he said. "In a democratic society, this makes law's relation to the environment everyone's problem and everyone's responsibility, and it cannot wait. Events may overturn intention unless we are expeditious."

The CLI policy paper lays out a legal framework for constructing intergenerational rights and duties, and for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of existing law. It also offers 16 recommendations that governing bodies from local to global can implement to safeguard the environment.

The CLI engaged more than 40 legal and public policy experts from the United States and Europe to help with the policy paper, including Jonathan Carlson, a professor in the UI College of Law; Jerald Schnoor, a professor in the UI College of Engineering; Maureen McCue, an adjunct professor in the UI Global Health Studies Program and coordinator of the Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility; and Sharon Benzoni, formerly a research associate at the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, currently executive director of the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council.

"The CLI's ultimate goal is a fundamental change in the way legal systems think about the environment," said Weston. "We hope it leads to a paradigm shift in the way the law -- and everyone and everything else -- relates to the environment."

Weston said that the obligation to do right by our children and grandchildren carries great moral weight, but that this has not been reflected in our legal systems to a degree sufficient to meet such environmental challenges as climate change. The concept of the common good, he said, is not only to establish a civil society for the current generation, but to make sure a functioning society can be handed to our heirs and their descendants.

In an environmental sense, he said, this means that current generations must act to ensure future generations' rights to, for instance, biological diversity, environmental quality, and access to resources.

"Leaving the earth better than we found it is not merely a nice idea," Weston said. "It is our responsibility to our children, grandchildren, and generations beyond."

However, Weston said that for this to happen the legal system must be reformed. As it is now, he said environmental rights and especially those of future generations are only peripherally considered by the legal and political system, if they're considered at all. Most of the time, they're trumped by such values as property rights and economic development.

"We must align the laws of humans with the laws of nature," he says.

Among the CLI's 16 legislative, regulatory and judicial proposals:

--Urging states to adopt constitutional amendments implementing environmental rights for future generations and to pass state laws to enforce them.

--Enacting a National Environmental Legacy Act that would require defining in concrete terms the environmental legacy that should be left to future generations and providing a mechanism to ensure it.

--Creating "Environmental Stakeholder Trusts" such as "sky trusts" to safeguard and make clear the shared ownership of our environmental commons.

--Instituting cap and trade regulatory strategies.

--Asking governments to establish offices of "legal guardians" to act on behalf of the ecological rights and interest of future generations.

--Urging the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a declaration formally recognizing the atmosphere as a global "commons" shared by present and future generations.

Weston said the CLI will spend the coming months discussing their policy proposals with public policy organizations, think tanks, citizens groups, scholars, political and government leaders, faith-based organizations and others.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell), tom-snee@uiowa.edu