Environmental Law and Policy

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Duke Law faculty and alumni have long used their expertise to influence national and international environmental law and policy, find moral and practical solutions to complex environmental problems, and train successive generations of lawyers and policy advocates.

Featured Faculty

Michelle Nowlin

Michelle Benedict Nowlin

Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director, Environmental Law and Policy Clinic

Clinical Professor Michelle Nowlin led the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic's participation in an initiative to protect North Carolina children from water-based lead exposure that received the 2020 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership from Harvard's Kennedy School. The partnership spurred the adoption of new requirements for testing for and removing lead from drinking and cooking water at childcare centers and pre-K programs. Duke students, working with Nowlin and the clinic’s science and policy fellow, devised a regulatory and fiscal framework that was adopted by the state. 


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Selected Courses

235 Environmental Law

Concern about environmental risks has spurred the growth of a complex array of laws and regulations over the past four decades. This course is designed to provide a general introduction to the theory and practice of environmental law, with an emphasis on the major pollution control statutes, especially the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Some of the recurring themes of the course will be the balance between federal and state authority, the economic justifications for environmental regulation, the distributional effects of environmental policy, the choice of regulatory instruments, and the role of federal agencies. The political backdrop for the development of environmental policy, especially the role of interest groups, political affiliation, and public perceptions, will also be discussed.

298 Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy

This course explores laws and policies that affect decisions on United States ocean and coastal resources. We examine statutes, regulations, attitudes, and cases that shape how the United States (and several states) use, manage, and protect the coasts and oceans out to – and sometimes beyond – the 200-mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone. We cover government and private approaches to coastal and ocean resources, including beaches, wetlands, estuaries, reefs, fisheries, endangered species, and special areas.

520 Climate Change and the Law

This 2-credit seminar will examine global climate change and the range of actual and potential responses by legal institutions – including at the international level, within the United States and other countries (such as Europe, China, and others), at the subnational level, and at the urging of the private sector.

We will compare alternative approaches that have been or could be taken by legal systems to address climate change: the choice of policy instrument (e.g., emissions taxes, allowance trading, infrastructure programs, technology R&D, information disclosure, prescriptive regulation, carbon capture & storage, reducing deforestation, geoengineering, adaptation); the spatial scale; the targets of the policy and criteria for deciding among these policy choices. We will examine actual legal measures that have been adopted so far to manage climate change:  international agreements such as the Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), its Kyoto Protocol (1997) and Paris Agreement (2015), plus related agreements like the Kigali Amendment (on HFCs) and ICAO (aviation) and IMO (shipping); as well as the policies undertaken by key national and subnational systems. In the US, we will study national (federal) and subnational (state and local) policies, including EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act, other federal laws and policies relevant to climate change mitigation, state-level action by California, RGGI states, and North Carolina. We will also explore litigation involving tort/nuisance civil liability and the public trust doctrine to advance climate policy.

590 Risk Regulation in the US, Europe and Beyond

Faced with myriad health, safety, environmental, security and financial risks, how should societies respond This course studies the regulation of a wide array of risks, such as disease, food, drugs, medical care, biotechnology, chemicals, automobiles, air travel, drinking water, air pollution, energy, climate change, finance, violence, terrorism, emerging technologies, and extreme catastrophic risks. (Students may propose to research other risks as well.)

Across these diverse contexts, the course focuses on how regulatory institutions deal with the challenges of risk assessment (technical expertise), risk perceptions (public concerns and values), priority-setting (which risks should be regulated most), risk management (including the debates over "precaution" versus benefit-cost analysis, and risk-risk tradeoffs such as countervailing harms and co-benefits), and ongoing evaluation. It examines the rules and institutions for risk regulation, including the roles of legislative, executive, and judicial functions; oversight bodies (such as judicial review by courts, and executive review by US OMB/OIRA and the EU RSB); fragmentation and integration; and international cooperation.

The course examines these issues through a comparative approach to risk regulation in the United States, Europe, and other countries (especially those of interest to the students in the course each year). It examines the divergence, convergence, and exchange of ideas across regulatory systems; the causes of these patterns; the consequences of regulatory choices; and how regulatory systems can learn to do better.

636 Food, Agriculture and the Environment: Law & Policy

“Food,” “agriculture,” and the “environment” are distinct American mythologies tied to our most basic physical needs and imbued with our most significant cultural meanings. They are also irrevocably entwined. Most of us eat at least three times a day and, unless you are in extraordinary circumstances, those meals were produced within our national — and increasingly global — food and agriculture system. And it’s a system that causes startling environmental harms; think water and air pollution, pesticides, greenhouse gases, non-human animal welfare, deforestation, soil depletion, wetlands destruction, fisheries collapse, and on and on. Yet notions of “agricultural exceptionalism” exempt agriculture from many of our nation’s environmental laws.

Undergirding the system are the people who help put food on our tables. The food and agriculture system depends on immigrants who toil as farmworkers and work the slaughterhouse lines even as it romanticizes the Jeffersonian ideal of the solitary yeoman. It co-opts the knowledge of Black, Indigenous and people of color under terms like “sustainable” and “regenerative” without reckoning with land theft, enslavement, or the patterns of discrimination and land loss that persist today.

This course will survey how law and policy helped create and perpetuate the interrelated social, economic and environmental iniquities of our modern food and agriculture system. More optimistically, we will study how law and policy can address systemic issues and move us toward values of equity and environmental justice, conservation, restoration, community health and economic sustainability. And if you read Omnivore’s Dilemma and want to learn what the Farm Bill actually does, this is your chance.

Environmental Law and Policy Clinic

In the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, students from the Law School and the Nicholas School of the Environment develop a broad array of tools and insights from their various disciplines while working together to handle cases. Students develop skills in litigation, mediation, negotiation, and conflict resolution while using a collaborative approach to work on a wide variety of matters, encompassing water quality, air quality, natural resources conservation, sustainable development, public-trust resources, and environmental justice. 

Students posing with sign

Meet Thomas Napoli '21

Thomas Napoli

In the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Thomas worked on a team of JD and graduate environmental management students to appeal an administrative decision that stripped a group of rural North Carolinians of their access to clean drinking water. He and his fellow student-attorney wrote the legal memorandum and then delivered the oral argument in a superior court in North Carolina. While at Duke, Thomas has also had an internship with the U.S. Department of Justice, a summer associate position at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and an externship with a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He is now a Litigation Associate at the leading international law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP's New York office.


I am tremendously grateful to my supervisors and the dedicated clinical staff who mentored and supported me through this entire appeal, an experience which has confirmed my desire to pursue a career as a litigator and take on environmental cases.

Thomas Napoli '21
Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum
Call to Action Content

The student-edited Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum presents scholarship that examines environmental issues by drawing on legal, scientific, economic, and public policy resources. Its affiliations with the Nicholas School for the Environment, the Sanford School Public Policy, and the Law School render it uniquely positioned to adapt to the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of environmental law. DELPF, which draws it staff from all affiliated schools, presents an annual symposium that attracts top academics, practitioners, and policymakers from across the nation.

JD/Master of Environmental Management

In collaboration with the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Law School offers the opportunity to pursue a JD/Master of Environmental Management dual degree. Students admitted to the JD/MEM program complete both degrees in four years. Duke's MEM program teaches students how to analyze and manage natural environments for human benefit and ecosystem health, focusing on the scientific bases of environmental problems as well as the social, political, and economic factors that determine effective policy solutions. 

LLM Certificate in Environmental Law

Duke Law's Certificate in Environmental Law provides LLM students the opportunity to further refine their research and career focus on environmental law and policy by maximizing their exposure to outstanding courses and instructors at the Law School and across Duke University, including through our partnerships with Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and other interdisciplinary programs.