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"Nyack News and Views" featured Pace Law School Professor Karl Coplan in "Nyack Sketch Log: Coplan's Cool Ride (to a Lower Carbon Footprint)"

04/16/2019

"Nyack News and Views" featured Pace Law School Professor Karl Coplan in "Nyack Sketch Log: Coplan's Cool Ride (to a Lower Carbon Footprint)"

Science tells us, unequivocally, that the behavior of billions of humans has created an existential threat to the earth called climate change. According to Professor Karl Coplan, if humans change their behavior and reduce their carbon footprint, we might have a chance to bequeath a living planet to future generations. Coplan also demonstrates through his life style, that the journey to a lower carbon footprint can be a cool ride.

In November 2019, Coplan will release Living Sustainably Now: A Low-Carbon Vision of the Good Life. His credentials, academic, legal and practical, are extremely impressive. A professor at Pace University School of Law, he directs their Environmental Law Center and has been outside counsel for Riverkeeper, and clerked for United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger. And to practice what he preaches, he has kayaked and biked to work, retrofitted his home, and found a way to make vacations intermittent energy fasts for over 30 year, reducing his carbon footprint to half of the average American.

Tonight, April 16 at 6:30p at the Nyack Center, Karl will present some of what he’s doing to reduce his carbon footprint. If the weather’s good, Coplan may ride his Zero Series S electric motorcycle to the venue, navigating through the crowded crossroads of the environment, science and the law. For the sake of our future, sto

Where does your passion for the planet come from?

How can anyone not have a passion for the system that sustains all life? But, more personally – growing up as the skinny kid who was not very good at sports, I found in nature both an inner peace and physical challenges and confidence that sustain me to this day.

What was it like clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger?

It was a very heady experience to be on the inside of every Supreme Court case and discussion for a year, just one year out of law school. Not only were there the conversations with the Chief, but the give and take discussions in the clerks’ network of law clerks for all nine Justices. No other legal experience in my career has been at that level.

What are some of the most important cases that you have brought to protect the planet?

The great thing about working with Riverkeeper and other Watekeeper organizations is working from the ground up to protect the ecosystem one stream, wetland, or watershed at a time. So instead of counting national cases, I can look around the Hudson River Valley and point to individual ecosystem battles that are interconnected to the global whole, like the hillside in Fort Montgomery we protected from development, or the nitrogen discharges to Long Island Sound we restricted, the toxic lead shotgun pellets we got removed from Long Island Sound, or the permits we forced the state to issue to limit the pollution of a trout stream in the Catskills. Some of these efforts are still ongoing, like the environmental cleanups we sued to force in Newtown Creek and Hastings on Hudson.

The fossil fuel industry has a huge war chest, are there enough law students choosing environmental law?

There are plenty of law students – but they need jobs that allow them to support themselves and pay their student loans. Litigating NGOs like Riverkeeper here in the Hudson River Valley and NRDC and EarthJustice at the national level play an important role providing a career path for lawyers who don’t want to represent the ExxonMobils of the world. But they rely on contributions from supporters.

Tell us about Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace?

The Clinic was founded 30 years ago as a partnership between Pace Law School and the then-new Hudson Riverkeeper program. Law students need practical experience practicing law, and John Cronin, the first Riverkeeper, needed legal representation to take on the entrenched companies polluting the Hudson River. Bobby Kennedy was working on his legal masters degree at Pace at the time as well as working pro bono as a Riverkeeper attorney, so it was natural for him to take over running the Clinic.

For over thirty years now, eight to ten Pace law students each semester get real litigation experience representing Riverkeeper in its environmental cleanup battles. They are allowed to appear in court without having passed the bar yet by special permission of the New York court system. I have been co-directing the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic for twenty five years now – since 1994 – and joining the Clinic was the best break of my life, since it has allowed me to combine my passion for the environment with the practice of law and the deep satisfaction of training and mentoring students for careers in environmental law. My former students include DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi, and scores of other students who have gone into environmental law careers ranging from private firms to government enforcement agencies.

Is it true that climate deniers are filing Freedom of Information Requests to harass scientists?

Yes, this is one of many ways that industry funded groups are working to harass climate scientists and prevent public acceptance of climate science. The problem is that in some states, the courts have taken the position that scientists at state universities are public officials, so that their email communications are subject to public disclosure under Freedom of Information laws. Most recently, Michael Mann at Penn State was forced to publish all of the emails from his university account. You probably did not hear much about this, because there was absolutely nothing embarrassing about them. Columbia Law School’s Mike Gerrard has started a climate scientist defense fund project to provide legal representation to climate scientists being subjected to this sort of harassment.

I understand you had an extremely low carbon foot print commute from your home to work, what was it?

For over twenty years now, I have commuted to work in White Plains by paddling kayak across the river from the Nyack Boat Club, then riding a bicycle the eight miles from Tarrytown. I built the kayak myself in 1997 as a project to take my mind off of the monumentally frustrating Pyramid Mall battle we were fighting at the time. It seemed then like a simple antidote to the car culture the mall exemplified. Of course, I could only make my paddle & pedal commute in the warm and light months of the year, and then only two or three days a week. Now that the bike lane on the new Tappan Zee bridge is supposed to open, I will probably hang up my kayak paddle and just bike to work. We need to make sure the Thruway Authority keeps the bike path open late at night – it will be a great non-car commuting option, but not if they close it at dusk like they have threatened to.

If part of having a low carbon foot print being multi-modal, what are some of your transportation modalities?

Cars are killing the planet, so I have tried my best to avoid using them where possible. I went for about a decade without owning my own car (I borrowed Robin’s Prius when I really needed one). When I couldn’t paddle across the Hudson to work, I was a regular rider on the Tappan Zee Express bus, then I bought an electric motorcycle when Zero came out with the first practical model in 2012. When I totaled that motorcycle, Robin prevailed on me to look at an EV- so I ended up with a very affordable Smart Fortwo in 2015. But I bought another Zero e-moto too – they are just too much fun.

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"Nyack News & Views" featured Haub Law Professor Karl Coplan in "Earth Matters: Life on a (Carbon) Budget"

04/18/2018

"Nyack News & Views" featured Haub Law Professor Karl Coplan in "Earth Matters: Life on a (Carbon) Budget"

As she wrapped up a recent talk on the current state of polar ice, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory geophysicist Dr. Robin Bell spoke of the need for us all to live sustainably. As a shining example, she cited her own husband, environmental law professor Karl Coplan, who works hard to live on a carbon emissions “budget” of four tons a year. “He does it,” said Bell. “I try really hard . . .”

Coplan blogs about his endeavor to live within his ambitiously low budget of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and is working on a book about living sustainably on a tiny fraction of the typical American’s annual 44-ton carbon output.

Earth Matters spoke to Coplan by phone last week about his quest to curb his carbon footprint. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

EM: What inspired you to start tracking your carbon budget?

It wasn’t anything sudden. It was more of an evolution than an epiphany.

I’ve taught environmental law since 1994 at Pace College Law School, in the Environmental Litigation Clinic. Before that, I worked at a law firm that did a lot of public-interest environmental work. So I’ve always been sensitive to our environmental footprint. I always got the smallest, best-mpg car to get to work and back, and all the rest. Climate change seemed like something way off in the future, and not something we have to fight right now, like Indian Point dumping radioactive tritium into the Hudson River, or nitrogen coming from NYC sewage treatment plants (to give examples from cases I worked on).

We have environmental laws because people make business and personal decisions without considering  environmental impact. We justify coming in and taking action, and wag our fingers at people who choose to pollute to make a dime. But if you look at your own choices—how you get to work or where you go on vacation—you realize that, like the old Walt Kelly comic, we have met the enemy and he is us: every one of us with a high-emissions lifestyle, especially in the U.S.

So, I came back from a sabbatical ten years ago and thought: What can I do? I realized that I should start keeping track of my own carbon footprint with trackers that were beginning to appear online.

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"Nyack News & Views" featured Law Professor Karl Coplan in "Earth Matters: Polar Ice (And Why You Care)"

04/11/2018

"Nyack News & Views" featured Law Professor Karl Coplan in "Earth Matters: Polar Ice (And Why You Care)"

The home front against sea rise

“The poles matter to us, right here in our community,” Bell told her audience. “As residents of this planet, we all need to reflect on our contribution, and be responsible for the future.” 

Bell doesn’t just talk the talk. With the human contribution to earth’s temperature rise beyond dispute, Bell and her husband, Karl Coplan, a Professor of Environmental Law at Pace University and chief outside counsel for Riverkeeper, Inc., have put themselves on a four-ton-a-year “carbon ration” (which is dwarfed by the American average of 44 tons per year). Air travel and heating are their household’s biggest carbon budget items. “Karl is meeting his budget. And I’m really trying,” said the pole-hopping scientist.

But Bell and Coplan insist that they—and we—have fun while doing our part: “I came here in an electric car tonight, and we have these awesome electric motorcycles . . .”

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