Law professor tackles climate change
Climate change is a controversial topic in the political scene, but in scientific communities and in the legal field, climate change is undeniable. Law professor Tracy Hester deals with climate-change issues and environmental law on a daily basis, is a proponent of emerging technologies and climate change research and has written numerous publications on the subject.
The White House recently announced the development of a new website designed to monitor the effects of climate change and its impact on American communities. Hester said there are a number of “irreducible axioms” in regard to climate change that he wants to bring awareness to and instill in his students.
“Virtually every climatologist will agree that climate change is occurring. We currently do not have law written specifically to address climate change directly,” Hester said. “Instead, we are engaged in a giant attempt to retrofit existing laws to deal with a new situation.”
Choosing to ignore climate change is expensive, Hester said.
“The only way to constructively deal with a problem is to go out and face it. The longer that you don’t plan for it, the longer you don’t invest in dealing with it. The longer you postpone action to wait and see, the bigger the price tag and the higher the damages,” Hester said. “There are a lot of things that we can be doing now that frankly make sense on their own without regard to climate change, and we should be aggressively stepping forward to do them.”
“Failing to do so risks damages that we just can’t undo.”
Hester said climate change is a complex, multifaceted matter.
“People tend to think of climate change as a large, abstract issue, but the truth is it’s translated into hundreds of different kinds of avenues that come into a courtroom,” Hester said, “from suing local governments for failing to anticipate and plan for flooding due to climate change to the other end of the scale, suing the largest power producers for failing to stop their greenhouse gas emissions and, as a result, creating a nuisance under TORT law.”
The courts have to sort through the intricacies of these laws. Environmental law continually reinvents itself, he said, and that’s one reason it’s so much fun both to practice and to teach.
Hester said he tries to engage his students to participate in his classes. From role-playing exercises and research projects to open-floor discussions, Hester said he wants his students to come into his class with an open mind and leave with a “sense of possibility.”
“My hope is that that same sense of exploratory creativity — that sense of problem solving — is exactly what I’d like to try to do in classes,” Hester said. “It’s far more valuable to give someone a problem and then try to work through it together, even if it’s a problem that doesn’t really have a clear answer, as opposed to giving them a body of lore and asking them to commit it to heart.”
Hester came to the University in 2010 with more than 25 years of legal experience. He is well-connected in his profession and has been associated with many nonprofit organizations including the Greater Houston Partnership Environmental Policy Advisory Committee, the American Bar Association’s Section on Environment, Energy and Resources, the Texas Environmental Research Consortium and UH’s Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Center.
Before joining the University, he was a partner at Bracewell & Guiliani LLP, where he honed his expertise for 18 years. He said his experience in the legal community has better prepared to him teach, and he said he would teach as long as possible.
“Those who can do, often want to teach, because they are the ones that want to pass on what they’ve done,” Hester said.
A.A. White Professor of Law and Interim Director of the EENR Center Jacqueline L. Weaver said Hester is “a remarkable person.”
“He teaches courses that really nobody else can teach. He was a super lawyer in environmental law,” Weaver said. “He has incredible knowledge in environmental law especially in the energy industry here in Houston. He’s a pretty laid-back person, but he still expects a lot from his students.”
Hester teaches several courses, including a required first-year law course called Statutory Interpretation and Regulation, but he also teaches an array of environmental law courses.
Third-year law student Michael Quirke said Hester’s environmental law course swayed him to change his career focus.
“Professor Hester was instrumental in my choosing to focus on environmental law for a career. I consider him a mentor,” Quirke said. “He is also the founding board member of Climate Change National Forum and Review, a nonprofit that I run, so we know each other well.”
Hester said he would continue to research topics in environmental law in hopes that it will bring “smarter, better ideas with opportunities for students to take them and lead them into the world and do great things with them.”
“I hope (my students) get a sense of just how much fun the practice of law is,” Hester said. “Doing it well and having people trust and rely on you is incredibly rewarding.
“There is a sense of community of trust in law.”