Law Professor Plays Role in USSC Global Warming Case
Published: April 16, 2007
The United States Supreme Court's landmark April 2 decision reflects the position taken by 18 climate scientists in a friend-of-the-court brief crafted by four American law professors, including Widener Law Professor John C. Dernbach of the school's Harrisburg campus.

Dernbach and his colleagues represented a group of independent scientists who supported the state of Massachusetts and other petitioners in a challenge to EPA's decision not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. In the first U.S. Supreme Court case to deal with climate change, the Court decided that EPA had the statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our goal in preparing this brief," Dernbach said, "was to give some of the nation's preeminent scientists an opportunity to speak directly to the Supreme Court--without filtering, interpretation or spin. The majority's decision reflects their view of the science, and even the dissenting opinions didn't try to contradict it."

The group of scientists on whose behalf Dernbach and the other attorneys filed an amicus brief Aug. 31 includes James Hansen, head of the NASA Institute for Space Studies, nine members of the National Academy of Science or Engineering and two Nobel Laureates in chemistry who study the earth's atmosphere. Dernbach did the work pro bono.

Dernbach joined the Widener Harrisburg campus faculty in 1993. He teaches environmental law, international environmental law, climate change, sustainability and the law, property, international law and administrative law. His research concentrates on environmental law, climate change and sustainable development. He returned last year from a 2-year stint as policy director for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under the direction of DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty.

The lawsuit began when the EPA was asked to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles under the federal Clean Air Act, the same way the agency regulates other pollutants, like lead. But the EPA refused, claiming as one of its reasons that the science of climate change was uncertain. The group of scientists that Dernbach represents took issue with the EPA's position. The scientists counter in their brief that recent observations of changes to the ecosystem are so compelling they have brought remarkable consensus within the scientific community.

"We feel an obligation to inform this Court that [EPA and the Appeals Court] misunderstood or mischaracterized the science" contained in a report at issue in the case, the brief states. The scientists felt compelled to weigh in, they wrote, to "offer our professional insight on using scientific evidence to judge whether a particular standard for regulatory action is met in the matter of climate change." The scientists maintain that the human impact on climate change is sufficient to enable the EPA to regulate emissions from cars and trucks, just as it did with lead, a timely action that the scientists say saved the United States billions of dollars and protected the health of tens of millions of people.