FROM KANSAS TO THE WORLD: The cutting edge of environmental law

From the moment I submitted my law school applications, I have been certain of one thing: I want to practice environmental law. What I did not know when I first arrived at Green Hall in 2010 is just how much I would be exposed to cutting-edge issues in environmental law and climate change.

Last summer, Kansas faced one of the most disastrous droughts in recent history. Many agriculture experts predict severe summer temperatures will only continue to worsen due to climate change. Through the environmental law curriculum and extracurricular opportunities offered at KU Law, I have engaged with this issue on both a local and global scale.

Professor Outka’s Environmental Law Seminar on climate change exposed me to the international and domestic legal frameworks governing climate change. This knowledge inspired me to apply for the Jessup International Moot Court team. This year’s Jessup problem was novel and profoundly saddening: What can small island nations do after rising sea levels inundate their entire territory?

Small island nations and territories represent some of our most beautiful and ecologically sensitive lands. I know this first hand from Professor Torrance’s Biodiversity Law course, which is taught in the United States Virgin Islands. Climate change not only threatens to take people’s homes, but potentially their entire cultural and spiritual systems. Through the Jessup competition, my teammates (Matthew Agnew, Sam Barton, Jane Li, and Lauren Pearce), our advisor Professor Head, and I worked to identify the most viable legal strategies small island nations can bring before international tribunals. Our efforts paid off as we placed second in our region and secured a place at the international competition in Washington, D.C. later on this year. Although I am proud of our success, I am also mindful that the threats posed by climate change are an ongoing challenge, especially for indigenous populations.

Climate change threatens to eradicate entire indigenous communities around the world. These communities are on the front lines of a battle that has the potential to affect us all, yet the international community continues to push the issue aside in many ways. The United Nations Security Council does not consider climate change a security issue despite conservative measures that estimate climate change will cause between 50 and 200 million environmental refugees. Further, we are now learning that some of the initiatives in the now expired Kyoto Protocol under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have worked to exacerbate the consequences of climate change on indigenous communities rather than ameliorate them. Despite the lack of positive developments, the plight of these communities has not gone unnoticed.

Through the Tribal Law & Government Conference at KU Law this year, and with the encouragement of Professor Kronk, I had the privilege of serving on a panel addressing this very issue. It is incredible that we are addressing issues facing the island of Tuvalu, which is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the landlocked Sunflower State. Climate change is a profound reminder of our interconnected humanity. A wheat farmer from Johnson, Kansas need not speak Amharic to understand how drought affects our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. It is also one of the reasons I am so glad to have commenced my environmental law career in Kansas.

If I have learned anything, it is that there is no single solution for climate change. We are all affected, we are all responsible, and we are all capable of doing our part to address the problem. The law school and KU are taking steps to address this global problem locally. The law school will no longer purchase Styrofoam products whose production releases ozone-depleting gasses. Students and faculty are constantly reminded to be cognizant of their energy use, to turn off classroom lights, and to recycle. Just up the hill, KU has a myriad of incentives to help the student body become environmentally conscious. Recently, the entire KU campus received the Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation for the university’s tree replanting and conservation efforts. Preserving tree canopies is crucial in addressing climate change. I had the honor of representing the law school in attaining this status through the Environmental Law Society. The list of opportunities and experiences for environmentally minded students available at KU Law is limitless, unlike the natural resources we must preserve for future generations.

— Isabel Segarra is a 2013 KU Law graduate from Austin, Texas. She received a Bachelor of Arts in political science and sociology from Texas A&M University. She previously served as president of the Environmental Law Society and earned the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Certificate offered by the law school. She is grateful to her family for their support and to Professor Uma Outka for her continuous encouragement and enthusiasm. This column first appeared in the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association.