Widener Harrisburg Offers Unique Environmental, Sustainability Opportunities

For third-year law student and Harrisburg resident Pia Aklian, presenting proposed sustainability ordinances to the Harrisburg City Council last year was more than a routine class assignment.

“I actually live here. Helping Harrisburg increase its residential recycling rates is very personal to me. Not only did this class take me out of the library, it gave me a chance to make a difference.”

Aklian did this work as part of the Sustainability Law and Practice Class she took in 2014 with Distinguished Professor of Law John C. Dernbach, a nationally-recognized environmental law expert and a prominent Pennsylvania legal theorist whose work has been cited by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a ground-breaking environmental and constitutional case.

To reflect this emphasis on sustainable development, Widener Harrisburg’s Environmental Law Center is being renamed as the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center.   “No other law school has our combination of environmental law, sustainability and climate change experience,” said Interim Dean Robyn L. Meadows. “And Widener Law Commonwealth’s location in the capital of the nation’s sixth most populous state makes it an influential place for the development and implementation of environmental and sustainability laws.” On July 1, Widener Harrisburg will be named Widener University Commonwealth Law School.

Professor Dernbach has long been a vocal proponent of the concept of sustainable development, which, as he puts it, is a way of addressing environmental problems while also achieving social and economic goals.

According to Dernbach, the principles of sustainability provide a framework for governments and companies to further development and environmental protection at the same time.

“It’s entirely possible to consider the environment AND the economy,” said Professor Dernbach. “In fact, it’s unacceptable NOT to consider them together.”

Aklian praised Professor Dernbach’s expertise and commitment to teaching.

“He makes sustainability and environmental law relevant; he’s so far ahead of his time. In just that one class we presented sustainability regulations to Harrisburg City Council, we had guest speakers, we toured the City of Lancaster and even met with the mayor there to talk about sustainability and urban development,” she said.

Aklian spoke proudly of her work for the City and the fact that she can count it among her clients.

“Harrisburg has low rates of residential recycling,” she said. “I was able to present them not only with updated regulations but also with some creative education and outreach ideas like more visible recycling bins, re-routing trucks to incorporate more neighborhoods with multi-family housing units, and issuing more bins to families all over the City.”

“This was more than handing in a paper. It was like moot court but on a much larger scale,” she said. “This was important public policy work; I presented real regulations to powerful people and I had to get them to believe in what I was saying. It was a unique opportunity.”

Remarkably, Professor Dernbach isn’t the only environmental scholar of national note at Widener Harrisburg. The law school is also the academic home to one of the country’s few environmental ethics experts, Professor Donald A. Brown, Scholar in Residence for Sustainability Ethics and Law.

Professors Dernbach and Brown worked for many years at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources/Department of Environmental Protection, and have extensive experience drafting, implementing, and litigating environmental laws.

Professor Brown has made it his life’s work in both public and private law practice as well as his academic teaching and scholarship to demonstrate that it is impossible to think clearly about how a nation or state should respond to climate change until the government responds to the ethical and moral dimensions of this enormous threat.

“There are features of climate change that scream for attention as seeing it fundamentally as an ethics and justice problem,” said Professor Brown.

“Not talking about the ethics of climate change is like unilaterally taking the goalie out of a hockey game,” Brown said. “This is true because the strongest arguments against those who oppose climate policies are ethical and moral responses. Yet the public discourse on climate change is ignoring the ethical and moral responses to opponents of climate change policies.”

At the invitation of the United Nations, Professor Brown will be heading to Paris in November to participate in the “21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11), otherwise known as “Paris 2015.” He is currently conducting a research project with the University of Auckland in New Zealand on the extent to which some two dozen countries are using ethical considerations in developing and implementing their climate policies.

Professor Dernbach leads Sustaining America, the only national project assessing U.S. sustainable development efforts and making recommendations for future activities. The project involves approximately 50 experts from a variety of sustainability disciplines and has produced three books, all published by the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.


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