Can Environmental Law Save Us From Disaster?

September 23, 2015 | Water in the West | Insights

Jacqueline Peel

By Jacqueline Peel, Visiting Scholar, Water in the West

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires are often thought of as “Acts of God.” However, the disaster management community increasingly recognizes that few disasters are purely “natural” in origin. For instance, land-use decisions that allow people to build (and rebuild) homes in floodplains contribute to flood damage; and greenhouse gas emissions contribute to extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change. 

In light of this, can the area of disaster management learn from the field of environmental law, which has a long history of designing tools to help prevent and mitigate harms from man-made disasters such as toxic contamination and pollution? 

Experts and disaster risk practitioners from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Africa considered the question at a Stanford Law School workshop earlier this year. 

Panels at the workshop canvassed three main issues. 

  1. What is a “disaster”? For instance, are long-tail events like the current Californian drought a “disaster” and what does that framing mean for the institutions and approaches used in the response? If we recognize the human contribution to many “natural” disasters, does that mean we need to look differently at questions of who is responsible for harms and compensation? 
  2. What tools are available to reduce the risk of disasters? For example, should we be using tools like planning, environmental impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis to improve disaster risk reduction efforts? In rebuilding after disaster (e.g. floods) should we also be looking to mitigate the risk of future disasters by rebuilding “smarter and greener”?
  3. How can we better integrate disaster risk reduction into institutions and mechanisms focused on climate change adaptation and environmental protection? Do we have a common language and understanding of disasters that would allow that to happen? Is the concept of “resilience,” increasingly embraced by government agencies working in this field, a useful unifying concept? 

Participants agreed there is a significant potential for environmental law instruments and mechanisms in the reduction of disaster risks. 

For a full report of the workshop proceedings or more information about the event, email Workshop participants are contributing to a book to be edited by Jacqueline Peel and David Fisher and published by Brill Publishers in 2016. 

Sponsorship for the workshop was provided by the Stanford Law School Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program, with co-sponsorship from the American Society of International Law, the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Stanford Journal of International Law and the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law