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Credit: Max Mester

Last month, just weeks after Philadelphians endured history-making flooding from Hurricane Ida, which displaced one of this guest column’s authors for three weeks, the University touted Penn as being “at the forefront of sustainability and climate science.” But Penn is not committed to climate justice across the University: the law school is failing its students and the climate. Although this week’s announcement that energy law expert Professor Shelley Welton is joining the faculty is an exciting step in the right direction, Penn Law must do more. 

Penn Law does not provide an adequate climate education and lags far behind peer law schools (commonly called the T-14, or “top fourteen”) in numerous ways. Penn Law is one of only two T-14 law schools without an environmental or climate legal clinic, putting Penn Law students at a disadvantage training for careers in environmental law. Such a clinic would also create a massive impact: Pennsylvanians are already feeling the inequitable effects of climate change, but the state still has over 100,000 active oil and gas wells and is the third biggest fossil fuel-producing state in the country. 

Penn Law also only offers between zero and two environmental law courses a semester, far fewer than peer schools. Because the law school had zero and now has just one full-time environmental faculty, the law school relies on adjunct professors to teach these courses — many of whom receive course evaluations lower, on average, than those of full-time professors. The lack of full-time environmental law faculty also means that students have limited research opportunities and lack the mentorship available at other law schools, making it harder for students to become environmental lawyers. 

In addition to falling behind other law schools, Penn Law lags behind other graduate schools within the University. While other parts of Penn have embraced the University’s broad push to integrate sustainability and environmental issues into the curriculum, the law school has yet to implement any meaningful changes.

Penn Law knows it is failing its students and the climate. For years, members of the student-led Environmental Law Project have pushed Penn Law to expand its climate programming. Generations of students have met with administrators with carefully-researched memos and pleas for action — to no avail.

Penn Law’s excuses for inaction do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no lack of student interest — the number of students interested in environmental law is growing each year and 214 students are demanding the creation of a climate clinic. And in 2019-2020, the Environmental Law Project had 105 applicants for our pro bono projects, far more than the student-run group can accommodate. As our generation continues to bear the brunt of the climate crisis, student demand for environmental law classes will only grow. 

Nor is there a lack of resources. Penn Law has one of the highest law school tuitions in the country and in the past two years, Penn Law has received both a $50 million and a $125 million gift (the latter being the largest donation ever made to a law school). Endowments across Penn’s schools, including Penn Law, grew 41 percent this year — which includes profits derived from the very industries causing climate change.

With these resources and its world-renowned professors, Penn Law could easily become a climate leader. First, the law school must expand its environmental faculty. Although Penn just hired its first environmental law faculty member, it must not stop at one. We need more environmental law faculty to accommodate student interest and create an academic community to explore legal solutions to the climate crisis. 

Second, Penn Law must create a climate-focused legal clinic. Penn Law students could then gain direct legal experience while making a difference in our climate change-vulnerable city, creating some justice for those most vulnerable to the climate crisis. 

By taking these minimal steps, Penn Law may finally begin to catch up to its peer institutions. Even greater action could make Penn Law a climate leader. We know that Penn Law can make these changes immediately, but whether or not it does is up to its administrators.

Students will continue to put pressure on the Law School until it takes meaningful climate action. We will not let the university continue to ignore the climate crisis and its students. We demand better. 

ELLEN HEIMAN is a third-year law student from Houston, Texas. Her email is erheiman@pennlaw.upenn.edu. SAGE LINCOLN is a second-year law student from Pittsburgh, Pa. Her email is sagelinc@pennlaw.upenn.edu.

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