Academics and Research

Law students consider global climate change

Imagine an increase in global temperatures, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels forcing a nation of 150 million to abandon a flooded homeland and resettle in another country.

Then imagine the lawsuits.

As nations and industries wrangle with the emerging science of global climate change, a new generation of lawyers is preparing to untangle the laws and treaties that continue to evolve along with the science.

At DU’s Sturm College of Law, adjunct Professor Anita Halvorssen is leading the first course in Global Climate Change Law and Policy. The wide-ranging course challenges seven students to consider a massively broad array of legal issues facing the world.

They’ve been discussing the impacts of oil pipelines, mining, air pollution, rising oceans, dwindling rainfall, crop failures, carbon trading and more.

“We’ve been really all over the map. It’s not just U.S. law; it’s also international law, state law, sustainability, it’s so many issues,” Halvorssen says. “When climate change effects our resources, it increases the chances of war. Food production is affected and fresh water becomes an issue.”

Climate change is already a threat

The issue of refugees, people not just forced to move to another part of their country, but to abandon it completely, is already a real issue, Halvorssen points out. The beaches of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific are shrinking as the ocean encroaches. The low-lying Maldives face annihilation by rising waters.

An Alaskan town is suing oil and power companies claiming global warming is melting the sea ice that used to protect it from erosion.

And Bangladesh, a low-lying country of 150 million, already endures massive flooding. Scientists estimate a three-foot rise in ocean levels would swamp half the country.

In April, scientists at a European conference predicted sea levels would rise nearly five feet by 2100, displacing tens of millions.

It was the kind of news, coupled with the Bush administration’s announcement that it had no plans to stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions until 2025 that had Halvorssen’s students talking in class.

Students are debating the role of the law

Even before they began deconstructing each others’ reports on the court’s role in refereeing environmental battles, they were talking informally about food shortages, global vehicle use, fossil fuels, sustainability — everything from Americans’ quality of life to the potential for China to simply enact by decree a new greener way of living for its people.

“Global climate change has been in the news so often. It’s really the future of international law,” says Lan Nguyen, a student pursuing her master’s in environmental law.

Nguyen, a lawyer in the Air Force, says in working for the government there are always issues of the military’s land use, emissions and the impact of military operations on endangered species. She says an instructor encouraged her to look at DU’s environmental law program to further her education.

Halvorssen, who also teaches sustainable development and trade, has a deep background in environmental law. The former senior executive officer at the Royal Ministry of Environment in Norway, Halvorssen now heads Global Legal Solutions, an international study group that provides research, analysis and policy solutions in environmental law.

For student Hernan Torres, another lawyer seeking that environmental law master’s degree, the frequency of environmental issues he kept running into in his work with the mining industry in Peru led him to look for an edge.

For him, it was a choice between a university in Scotland and DU.

“The University of Denver had a lot more expertise in the mining areas,” he says. “If we don’t address the environment, we die.”

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