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By Jaime Ciavarra • Photos by Claire Duggan

Surrounded by a throng of eco-conscious crusaders, Al Gore, environmental rock star, warns of a ticking time bomb.

Polar ice caps are melting, tick.

The earth’s temperatures are rising, tick.

Carbon emissions continue to swell, tick.

The planetary emergency that the former vice president of the United States has been relaying to classes, colleagues, and Congress for the past three decades is uniquely fitting for the audience sitting before him on this cold spring morning.

The nearly 300 students at the Dorothy Marvin Betts Theater on GW’s campus are eager to delve in and devote their careers to environmental law, a field that Gore says is essential to combating humanity’s greatest crisis.

“It is a challenge to our moral imagination to understand exactly what we’re in the process of doing,”

GW Environmental Law Association Board Members Bonnie Vanzler, Jamie Long, Alex Menotti, Rebekah Reynolds, John Costenbader, Deborah Attwood, and Lorene Delson join GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Dean Frederick M. Lawrence in welcoming former Vice President Al Gore to GW Law. “[Gore] has made it his mission to teach people to say ‘carbon emission’ as easily as they might say ‘baseball’ or ‘apple pie,’ ” Trachtenberg said.

Gore says about the scale and speed of global warming. “Law,” he adds, “gives us the ability to enforce principle and embody value.”

Gore, who has achieved celebrity-like status with his Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was the riveting conclusion to a four-day conference hosted by GW’s student-run Environmental Law Association in March.

The 17th annual National Association of Environmental Law Societies event attracted nearly 400 students and faculty members from more than 50 law schools across the nation to learn about environmental efforts. High-profile policy experts, government officials, and scholars led the sessions, including former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, JD ’78, a green city pioneer.

During a mid-conference networking lunch, environmental law students chat with practicing attorneys about career opportunities.

The discussions were rich, students say, and the ideas stimulating.

“Conferences teach…in a different way than classes ever could,” says John Costenbader, a second-year GW Law student and event organizer. “No longer do I see the environmental heroes at our conference as distant legends, but rather as regular human beings with a common interest as me.”

“The Goracle,” as Gore is nicknamed by ardent fans, took his hero-like status in stride as he argued his major themes and solutions for the environmental crisis that scientists first began studying in the late 1950s.

Neil Proto, MA ’69, JD ’72, speaks about the evolving role of law students in today’s legal environment during the panel on “Law Student Activism.” Proto, now a partner with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, is the former chairman of Students Challenging Regulatory Agency Procedures, or SCRAP.

Humans are dispersing 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours, Gore said during an hour-long presentation, wearing down the protective ozone layer and causing catastrophic changes that will lead to further biodiversity loss, dwindling fresh water supplies, extreme weather, epidemics, and the deterioration of the earth itself.

“The scale of the crisis and the speed with which it is overtaking our civilization are both completely without precedent. That in itself poses a particular challenge,” Gore says. “Because there is no precedent in understanding how large it is or how rapidly it is unfolding, we don’t really find it as easy to draw upon historical examples of other similar challenges. This is what economists would call a discontinuity in the course of human civilization.”

Necessary changes in the way we burn and use energy are difficult to implement, yet achievable, he adds. Gore told the crowd of future lawyers that he supports the development of new eco-friendly technologies, taxation on wastes like carbon emissions, a capping—as laid out in the Kyoto Treaty—of the amounts of carbon emissions emitted, and a direct regulation of what technologies are allowed and how they are used.

From left to right, Joe Kruger, policy director of the National Commission on Energy Policy; U.S. Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest; and Debra Jacobson, JD ’77, GW professorial lecturer in law, discuss their views during a panel on global warming legislation.

Gore’s message during the Sunday presentation reinforced the event’s in-depth panels and speakers that tackled everything from global warming legislation, to recent Supreme Court decisions, to international challenges facing the United States in environmental legislation. More than 30 environmental experts, scholars, and policy makers led the dozen or so sessions over the four days, which included a banquet dinner and a viewing of An Inconvenient Truth.

The GW environmental program has grown in numbers and popularity since its inception in 1970, and Dean Frederick M. Lawrence says the event for GW was “yet another piece of a distinguished record in environmental law.” Students planned the details of the conference for more than a year. Some said the nation’s capital—the center of U.S. politics and policy making—was an especially fitting location to champion the latest environmental efforts.

Students Alex Menotti, Katie Armstrong, and Rebekah Reynolds present Al Gore with an Environmental Law Association T-shirt.

“Climate change, the largest focus of the conference, is a global issue,” says 3L Rebekah Reynolds, president of the GW Environmental Law Association. “Being in D.C., where national and international decisions get made, is significant.”

GW Law’s location also played a role in snagging the most experienced and revered environmental leaders, many of whom practice in Washington, Reynolds says. Political will was also evident.

“Run for public office,” urged Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), a member of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans who spoke on a global warming legislation panel. “The dynamics happening now in Washington are better for the country.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, JD ’78, spoke during the conference’s banquet dinner about pioneering a Green Program that has helped the city meet environmental goals. Here Anderson talks with National Association of Environmental Law Societies Executive Director Dan Worth (center) and Tulane University Law students Andy Jacoby and Mary Reichert.

Armed with newfound knowledge, and inspired by rigorous debates, law students walking out of the Gore talk said they were ready to take on the onerous mission that is saving Mother Earth.

While they say the bomb is ticking, students and Gore stress that changing the planet’s course is entirely attainable.

“There is a moral imperative associated with this,” Gore says. “[Future generations] will ask one of two questions: ‘Why in God’s name didn’t you act?’ or ‘How did they find the courage to make a difference?’”