The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) recently honored me with its Curtin Winsor award for lifetime achievement.
PEC is a nonprofit statewide organization that aims to protect and restore the natural and built environments through innovation, collaboration, education and advocacy. It is an organization I have known and worked with for a long time.
As part of the event, PEC produced a remarkable video about my work. They also gave me the opportunity to speak for a few minutes about what has happened on environmental protection over the last 40 years—roughly the time I have been in Pennsylvania–and the work that remains to be done.
Those remarks are set out below.
Thank you. Thank you.
This is an enormous honor. I will remember this night for a long time.
When I arrived in Pennsylvania as a young lawyer in 1981 to work at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER)–now the Department of Environmental Protection–Curtin Winsor was legendary. There were few statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and PEC was almost certainly the most prominent of them. So to receive an award from PEC that is named after Curtin Winsor—well, it’s a big deal.
I also thank my wife, Kathy, who is here tonight. And as I think about our lives, as we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and learn from others, I want to thank the many, many other people who have taught, supported, guided, and, yes, corrected me over the years.
For the next few minutes, I want to share some thoughts about what has happened over the last 40 years—roughly the time I have been in Pennsylvania. I want to talk about how far we have come, where we are, and what we need to do.
How far we have come
In many ways, the environment is in better shape than it was in 1980. The air and water are cleaner, waste is better managed, and we are recycling more than we did then. A lot of contaminated sites have been made cleaner and are being used again.
The Growing Greener program has invested more than $1 billion in farmland preservation, state park renovation and improvement, and water and sewer system upgrades.
And finally, at long last, the Pennsylvania courts are taking our environmental rights amendment seriously as constitutional law.
And these are just some of the accomplishments of the past 40 years.
Nearly everyone in this room has made a contribution toward these accomplishments. To be honored tonight is all the more humbling because of the great contributions so many of you have made.
Where we are
In spite of all of this, we have a long way to go. There seems to be less progress on many issues, such as land use and biodiversity,
And there are new issues, like PFAS, PFOS, and other forever chemicals.
Perhaps the most important of the new issues is climate change, which is civilization threatening.
At the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, global concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were reported at about 340 ppm in 1980. Concentrations of that gas are now over 415 ppm.
According to NASA, average global surface temperatures are about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer now than they were in 1980.
Penn State projects that the average temperature in Pennsylvania will be 5 degrees warmer in 2050 than it was in 2000 unless action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, unless we act, it doesn’t stop there. The temperature just keeps getting warmer and warmer.
Climate change is an incredibly urgent issue. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 or earlier to avoid its worst effects. And reaching the 2050 goal means making a lot of progress by 2030—on electric vehicles and renewable electricity, among other things.
When I counseled the coal mining program at DER in the early 1980s, we worried about local effects of coal mining—unreclaimed land and acid mine drainage. For those of you who don’t know acid mine drainage, imagine thousands of miles of Pennsylvania streams that are lifeless and the color of orange Gatorade.
As bad as these impacts are, they are local and regional. Now we also worry about the global impacts of coal mining, particularly carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal to produce energy. It doesn’t really matter where carbon dioxide is emitted; it mixes in the global atmosphere.
More generally, we still operate on a model of development that all too often puts economic development ahead of the environment. We continue to see progress in terms of economic growth and new projects. And we still, all too often, treat the environment, and the people who directly depend on the environment in a particular place, as the price of progress.
What we need to do
We need to work harder to foster a new model of development—sustainable development. There is a tendency to see sustainable development, or sustainability, as simply a clever relabeling of environmental protection. It is not.
Sustainable development is not just about protecting the environment. It is about achieving economic development, social wellbeing, and environmental protection at the same time. Nations around the world endorsed sustainable development at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and it may be one of the most important ideas to come out of the 20th century.
It is not about development vs. the environment. It is about development and the environment. It would lead to a world in which humans live in harmony with nature—in this generation and for future generations—rather than at nature’s expense.
What would that world look like?
Environment: Imagine a world in which the daily effects of human activity actually maintain and improve environmental quality and biological diversity. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation’s work in rehabilitating and repurposing the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is honored tonight, provides an example of that.
Social: Respect for human dignity is essential. The award given tonight to the Fairmount Water Works Interpretative Center for highlighting historic discrimination in the availability of public swimming pools underscores the need for that respect. In addition, the communities that would be adversely affected by a project, or the fossil fuel workers who will be displaced by the transition to a clean economy, are not collateral damage. They are real people and real communities whose needs must be met.
Economic: Corporations and businesses are increasingly working toward more sustainable outcomes, bringing environmental and social considerations and goals into their decisions. Many of the sponsors of tonight’s event do just that.
As you can see, this new and more sustainable world is already being constructed—by inventors, architects, planners, government officials, corporations, lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens. As part of that, the clean energy transition is underway, and it will not be stopped.
Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable future—all of us—wherever we live, whatever work we do, whatever our skills are. No one person or organization can do this work. But all of us need to make a contribution.
We must recognize that doing what we have already been doing, by itself, will not be enough, no matter how good it is. We must bring others into this work, change our priorities, and in other ways redouble our efforts.
Let me give you an example from my profession, law. What should lawyers do differently?
The American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) House of Delegates—the policy making body for the organization—adopted a resolution in 2019 urging lawyers to counsel clients on the risks and opportunities of climate change.
I just got back from the international climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where I was one of two representatives of the ABA. We had first-ever events with members and heads of law associations from around the world about how to engage attorneys to counsel their clients on climate change. The ABA just published a short book by myself, Matt Bogoshian, and Irma Russell—Sustainability Essentials: A Leadership Guide for Lawyers—which is intended to help lawyers do just that.
I have also stepped away from full time teaching—some call this retirement, I call it my next act—to free up more time to work on these issues. I now find myself working with other “retired” lawyers, like Bobby McKinstry, to defend the Commonwealth’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative regulation.
We need to be hopeful about the future, in spite of its many challenges.
The work that brings us together tonight is essential, and we can each be justly proud of our achievements. But there is much, much more to do. This generation has an enormous opportunity to create a world in which every human can thrive in harmony with nature.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words: “Come my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
[The photo above on the right shows, from left to right: Patrick Starr, Executive Vice President, PEC; Carol McCabe, Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, Chair of the Board, PEC; me; Steve Miano, Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, Pudlin & Schiller; and Davit Woodwell, President, PEC.]