George Washington University Hosts Environmental Law Symposium with Keynote and Panels Devoted to Hope

GW Law student James Crisafulli won the Grodsky Prize for the year’s best paper on environmental law.

April 1, 2024

Environmental Law Symposium

Keynote speaker Robert Verchick advised people not to despair over global warming, but to work to mitigate its local effects. “The opposite of despair is action,” Verchick said. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Climate change is a problem so big it can flummox or frighten us into despairing inaction. To counter this inertia, according to legal scholar and author Robert Verchick, we should ask ourselves how climate change damages things we care about as individuals and seek appropriate remedies. One person can make a greater impact than we might think, and if enough of us act, the collective benefits of local efforts could be surprising.

“I think just doing that small thing is enough in the beginning,” said Verchick during his keynote address at the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Environmental Law Symposium, an annual gathering hosted by GW Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Program. This year’s symposium, titled “Environmental Justice Solutions Summit: Strategic Litigation, Resilience and Hope,” highlighted youth climate activism and explored environmental justice issues such as climate migration through an interdisciplinary lens.

Verchick occupies the Gauthier-St. Martin Eminent Scholar Chair in Environmental Law at Loyola University New Orleans. He is also a senior fellow in disaster resilience at Tulane University and the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a research and advocacy organization. ​In 2009 and 2010, he served in the Obama administration as deputy associate administrator for policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

His previous books include the award-winning “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World” (Harvard University Press, 2010). He is a frequent commentator in newspapers and other media.

In his latest book, “The Octopus in the Parking Garage” (Columbia University Press, 2023), Verchick describes efforts to promote climate resilience in various locales, including attempts to protect Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert and the work of citizen scientists to restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys. He spoke about these and other initiatives in his keynote address.

Praise for Verchick and his book were offered in introductory remarks by Randall S. Abate, assistant dean for environmental law studies, who also expressed his appreciation for the range of speakers in this year’s symposium, saying it reflects the growing scope of GW’s environmental law program. Further praise was offered by Robert L. Glicksman, the J.B. and Maurice Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law, who introduced the keynote speaker.

“It’s hard for me to believe that a law professor actually wrote this book,” Glicksman said. “It reads more like a thrilling mystery novel than a fusty academic tome. It’s a real page turner with Rob’s unique and accessible style and voice jumping off virtually every page.”

While existing laws can sometimes make matters worse and politicians seem unable or unwilling to act in effectively, Verchick said, the small efforts of individual citizens may be key to our survival.

“This is a moment when people are learning about climate change in a very personal, visceral way,” Verchick said. Yet no one living, he added, is likely to experience most of the positive results of our efforts to adapt. Even if optimal policies were put in place tomorrow, it will take a long time for the planet (and oceans) to cool. Nonetheless, he stressed, we must not give in to despair.

“What we have to learn is that the opposite of despair is action,” Verchick said.

The symposium’s keynote concluded with a Q & A session, with several panel discussions scheduled for the following day. Morning panels were on “Youth Community Organizing and Climate Justice” and “Climate Change Displacement and Migration.” Afternoon sessions were titled “Strategic Litigation to Promote Human Rights and Environmental Protection” and “Environmental Justice and Public Health.” Panelists included lawyers, activists and other experts across many disciplines who have been active in environmental justice initiatives around the world. Their discussions focused on success stories, proposed strategies for future progress, and hope.

Winner of the Grodsky Prize for 2024

At midday, the winner of this year’s Grodsky Prize for Environmental Law Scholarship was announced. The prize was established to honor the legacy of Jamie Grodsky, who at the time of her death in 2010 was a professor of environmental law at GW Law. The award, of $5,000, is given annually for the best paper written by a GW Law student in the environmental field. The winning paper must be of publishable quality and make a significant contribution to the theory or practice of environmental law.

Before presenting the prize, Glicksman said Grodsky’s work continues to spur insights among legal scholars and scientific researchers as well. This year’s prize-winning paper was written by third-year GW Law student James Crisafulli.

James Crisafulli accepts the Grodsky Prize
James Crisafulli is this year’s winner of the Grodsky Prize. His winning paper addresses problems caused by interstate pollution.

“The paper addresses the interstate economic and public health problems caused by interstate pollution,” Glicksman said. “The burning of fossil fuels emits air pollutants that, by drifting into neighboring states, impose significant interstate economic costs. James argues in his paper that creative solutions are needed to address this problem.”

Further, Glicksman said, Crisafulli’s paper argues that there’s an existing legal tool that could do so: the dormant commerce clause.

“This is a court-created doctrine that invalidates state laws that discriminate against out-of-state parties, that either apply extraterritorially or otherwise burden interstate commerce,” Glicksman said. “It has traditionally been used in the environmental context to challenge state environmental protections, and recently has been used to challenge renewable energy programs. But James proposes that the dormant commerce clause principles can be used against state laws that promote fossil fuels.”

Accepting the prize, Crisafulli thanked his teachers and mentors and said an interest in environmental justice is what inspired him to apply to GW Law. He thanked Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew for spearheading the school’s investment in public interest law, particularly environmental law.

“I came to GW because it’s in the nation’s capital,” Crisafulli said. “I had a policy interest and background and just wanted to be where the action was. I was passionate about environmental issues, but I didn’t really realize what I was going to be getting at GW in terms of environmental law. And I’ve been so grateful.”