The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is not an appropriate tool to address global climate change. While better informed agencies typically make better decisions, this is not always the case if an agency is focused on simply following the procedural requirements of NEPA (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 342). An environmental impact statement (EIS) simply needs to follow the procedural requirements and leaves the final choice to the decisionmaker (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 339). Since the focus of NEPA is to educate decisionmakers with the hope that they will make better decisions, it can be seen as an element of an environmental protection system, but on its own is not enough to adequately address global climate change.
The Trump Administration was a prime example of the weaknesses that are inherent in NEPA’s structure. If leadership is not concerned for environmental issues like climate change, there is no way for NEPA compliance to ensure that the most environmentally beneficial option is actually chosen (Reitze 2019, 214-217). At a global scale, the range of leadership differences would make the effective implementation of NEPA at a global scale piecemeal at best.
Global climate change policy tools will need to ensure consistency in approaches across the globe. The United States’ NEPA approach leads to inconsistent agency reviews and actions that would not provide the necessary consistency for effective global implementation. Additionally, climate change actions require deep analysis of indirect effects. NEPA compliance is already costly and time-consuming, so using that framework to require even more indirect climate change impacts on a global scale would be extremely prohibitive (Reitze 2019, 214).
Much of the nation’s environmental laws originated in the 1970s before human-caused climate change was a well-known issue. NEPA has helped better inform agencies on taking actions, but the mitigation requirements regarding climate change have been unresolved even after many court challenges (Reitze 2019, 180-217). NEPA has not been adequately improved over time to effectively manage global climate change issues. Like most of the environmental protection laws created decades ago the need for updated laws that improve the weaknesses of environmental policies and consider all the new information we have regarding the interdependent aspects of environmental issues is critical and applies to NEPA as well. It is time for the United States to focus on the largest long-term issue facing the globe and develop new laws and policies to comprehensively address global climate change.
Author: Logan Callen
Reitze, Arnold W. Jr. 2019. “Dealing with Climate Change Under the National Environmental Policy Act.” Utah Law Faculty Scholarship 165. Accessed August 8, 2022. https://dc.law.utah.edu/scholarship/165/.
Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.