Friday, April 22, 2022
By Suzi Morales

With the convergence of agricultural interests, clean energy, natural resources, and its manufacturing sector, Iowa is a microcosm of the current environmental challenges in the United States and globally. In this setting, the University of Iowa College of Law is uniquely placed to be at the forefront of environmental law issues.

The Hubbell Environmental Law Initiative (HELI), made possible by the $5 million gift from Iowa Law alumni Charlotte Beyer Hubbell (76JD) and Fred Hubbell (76JD), is helping the law school take its environmental law program to the next level.

Growing faculty, staff, and student fellowships

In August 2021, Iowa Law hired a new professor of law specializing in environmental justice, environmental governance, and climate change policy: Shannon Roesler. Professor Roesler is playing a major role in the initial growth of HELI.

“When you care about climate change, you feel an urgency,” Roesler says.

To lead HELI and the programs that will follow, Iowa Law is hiring a program director, and also has resources to hire a research fellow and an occasional visiting assistant professor. The program director will manage the day-to-day operations of HELI while a research fellow will conduct research and produce white papers to support HELI’s mission of engagement on significant issues across Iowa.

To jumpstart the initiative, HELI will provide financial support to students pursuing environmental law, including summer grants to students working in public interest environmental law internships. Starting in the fall, incoming students with Hubbell Environmental Law scholarships will be guaranteed grants of $5,000 for unpaid environmental law internships at government agencies or nonprofits during the summer after their first year.

Building on prior environmental initiative

Brian Farrell (98JD), associate professor of instruction and the associate director of the law school’s Center for Human Rights (UICHR), notes that the school has long had a solid reputation for teaching and scholarship in environmental law. “This [initiative] is going to grow that capacity,” he says.

The expansion of environment-focused programs is reaching across law school activities, the university as a whole, and the public, and includes cross-disciplinary engagement with various clinics and centers.

In 2009, UICHR co-founder and former Iowa Law professor the late Burns Weston created the Climate Legacy Initiative, a collaboration between Iowa Law and the Vermont Law School that explored the human rights implications of climate change. “Burns and that cohort recognized at an early point that climate change was not just an environmental issue,” Farrell remarks.

Today, the law school is revisiting that work and considering how challenges at the intersection of human rights and environmental law have evolved over the past 15 years. A new four-part series of webinars called “Human Rights and Climate Change,” organized by UICHR and HELI, builds on the prior scholarship around environmental issues and human rights.

In February, the first webinar in the series discussed the evolution of climate science and policy with scholars who had been involved in the 2009 project. The March webinar focused on intergenerational rights and duties, an emerging topic as youth become more prominent advocates on climate change issues. The discussion featured Mat dos Santos, general counsel at Our Childrens Trust, a nonprofit that represents children in climate-related cases. The third and most recent webinar featured Smita Narula, the Haub Distinguished Professor of International Law at Pace University, on the unequal burdens of climate change. Next up, the final webinar will focus on the impact of climate change in Iowa, specifically water quality.

Working at the intersection of labor and environmental groups

HELI also is supporting efforts to help environmental and labor groups join to find common ground on subjects like green jobs.

“What’s happening here is incredibly important for the nation,” remarks Clark-Bennett. “Creative initiatives developed in our local communities can inform work in states around the country.”

On April 9, the University of Iowa Labor Center hosted a public Labor & Climate Justice Summit sponsored by HELI and the BlueGreen Alliance of Iowa, featuring state and national leaders who addressed topics such as utility scale solar infrastructure, the future of electric vehicles, water quality, and promoting equity and safety in clean energy jobs. The BlueGreen Alliance of Iowa, a newly formed state chapter of a national coalition of labor and environmental groups, emerged from a year-long series of conversations the Labor Center convened with environmental and labor stakeholders in 2021.

“Labor and climate have often been pitted against each other,” says Robin Clark-Bennett, director of the University of Iowa Labor Center, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this May. The Labor & Climate Summit highlighted the many areas of intersection between these key stakeholders, and the Labor Center will continue to support the coalition’s efforts to promote high quality jobs in a clean energy economy.

Helping students build skills for future practice

HELI and the focus on environmental programs at Iowa Law is creating unique learning opportunities for students. According to Daria Fisher Page, clinical associate professor and director of the Community Empowerment Law Project (CELP), students with interests in environmental law have multiple ways of tailoring their experiences, including clinics, externships, and more.

Selveyah Gamblin grew up on the south side of Chicago, where smog, pollution, and a lack of clean water harmed family members with asthma and other health problems. “You grow to believe government doesn’t see you’re worthy” of a clean environment, she recalls. Today, Gamblin, a University of Iowa undergraduate student, works alongside Iowa Law students in CELP. Through their research on environmental crises, she says she is able to understand these issues from a legal perspective. The Legal Clinic at Iowa Law offers up to six positions each semester to undergraduates to participate alongside law students in the clinic and take part in the seminar to gain experience in the legal profession.

“The goal of the [CELP] is not to be subject matter driven, [but] to be as nimble as possible,” notes Fisher Page. This has allowed the clinic to be involved in advocacy and policy with a range of community initiatives, including on environmental issues. This spring semester, CELP is providing organizational support for the Maquoketa River Watershed Management Plan, a community-led project to address issues including water quality and flood mitigation.

CELP often supports coalition building,” says Fisher Page. This is evident in the work CELP students are doing along with the Labor Center to help BlueGreen Alliance members identify where their goals and skills are aligned, such as on clean energy and sustainable jobs.

According to Roesler, “We’re hoping to get students involved in environmental law initiatives in Iowa and beyond.” And with the range of issues and projects available, HELI offers students opportunities to engage no matter what a student’s interests or career goals may be.

In addition to working with CELP, second-year Iowa Law student Kelsey Demel mentors 1Ls. She often tells her mentees they are able to create opportunities to try out anything they might want to do as attorneys. She is interested in city planning and would like to work in real estate and construction law. With CELP, Demel was able to interact with clients and work on long-term community initiatives. She says being involved with environmental issues through the clinic reminded me why I went to law school.”

Similarly, Aaron Branson, a 3L in CELP, says he wants to work in-house. The clinic gave him the chance to work in a team setting and build consensus, which will be valuable skills in a corporate legal department.

Roesler is excited about the possibilities to “add to the curriculum and enrich the environmental law experience at Iowa.” Programs like conferences and academic workshops will continue to increase the school’s profile, build its network on environmental issues, and equip students for jobs in the growing environmental law sector. Iowa Law students will now be more prepared than ever to strengthen the bench and bar in the state.

Both Roesler and Fisher Page were drawn to Iowa Law in part due to its affiliation with a major research university. Fisher Page notes that there are many opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration throughout the university.

Leading in state and nation focus

While Iowa Law has been involved in environmental law issues for many years, now is a challenging but opportune time for the HELI initiative to take flight. Iowa Law alumni Charlotte Beyer Hubbell (76JD) and Fred Hubbell (76JD) recognized the urgency to address these issues and their gift gives Iowa Law the opportunity to make a difference.

“When you care about climate change, you feel an urgency,” Roesler says.

Farrell notes that his students are particularly attuned right now to issues related to environmental law. “Every day in the news, we’re getting this reinforcement that this is a serious issue,” he says.

Farrell notes that there are many serious implications of climate change, such as economic inequalities, access to food and water, and migration. Often, he says, those who are most impacted are often the least able to drive the conversation. He believes the law school’s current initiatives will serve as building blocks for future collaborations. “It’s a topic that needs sustained research focus,” says Farrell.

“What’s happening here is incredibly important for the nation,” remarks Clark-Bennett. As a largely rural state with a significant manufacturing sector, Iowa can be a testing ground for collaboration on environmental issues on a larger scale. “Creative initiatives developed in our local communities can inform work in states around the country.”