John C. Dernbach is Commonwealth Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability at Widener University, Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also directs the school’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center. He has divided his career between teaching and government service.
In his teaching role, Dernbach has focused on sustainable development, climate change, and environmental law. He has written and lectured widely on these subjects. He has written more than 50 articles for law reviews and peer-reviewed journals, and has authored, coauthored, or contributed chapters to more than 20 books.
Most recently, he and Professor Michael Gerrard edited Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States (Environmental Law Institute Press 2019), a comprehensive assessment and description of more than 1,000 legal tools that could be used to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. He is also the editor or principal author of three comprehensive assessments of U.S. sustainability efforts that made recommendations for future action. They are Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (2012), Agenda for a Sustainable America (2009) and Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002).
In addition, he was a member of the National Research Council Committee that, in Sustainability and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011), made recommendations on how to institutionalize sustainability at EPA. He was a member of the the American Bar Association (ABA) Task Force on Sustainable Development, which in 2015 issued a final report that included recommendations for strengthening EPA’s leadership position on sustainable development.
He has contributed to three landmark judicial decisions. Professor Dernbach’s scholarship and advocacy helped persuade the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in two major decisions (Robinson Township v. Commonwealth (2013); Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v Commonwealth (2017) ) to reinvigorate the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution. Until those decisions, the Amendment, which recognizes the basic rights of Pennsylvania citizens to a clean environment, had been nearly dormant for more than four decades. Dernbach was also one of four lawyers to co-author an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of 18 prominent climate scientists, including two Nobel laureates. In 2007, the Supreme Court held that that EPA erred by not controlling greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. The majority opinion reflects the science described in the brief, and the dissenting opinions do not contradict it. This case provides the foundation for much federal regulation of greenhouse gases.
In two stints totaling near 15 years, he worked at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection). During this time, he had a major role in drafting comprehensive and nationally recognized reforms to Pennsylvania’s mining and waste programs. He was the primary drafter of Pennsylvania’s recycling legislation, signed into law in 1988, under which more than two million tons of recyclable material are diverted from landfills each year. He was also a primary drafter of comprehensive regulations for municipal waste and residual waste (industrial waste that is not legally hazardous).
More recently, he directed the Department’s policy office. There, he was responsible for developing and coordinating policy and regulatory initiatives for the Department; and for advising the secretary on land use, energy, watershed protection, performance-based decision making, and other issues.
Dernbach is the author of a classic legal writing text and other works on legal writing.
He is the proud father of two daughters–Becky, a journalist; and Tess, a soon-to-be lawyer. He is also a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers.