Vanderbilt's New Faculty

Vanderbilt Law School welcomed five new professors in fall 2011: J.B. Ruhl, a nationally renowned scholar of land use and environmental law, who now holds the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in Law; and four assistant professors: Rebecca Haw, who focuses on antitrust law; Vijay Padmanabhan, who focused on national security law at the U.S. State Department before joining the academy; Ganesh Sitaraman, whose current work addresses foreign relations law and counterinsurgency strategy; and Yesha Yadav, who focuses on financial regulation.

Looking for the Win-Win: Advocating policies that "harmonize" environmental and economic benefits

J.B. Ruhl, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in Law

by Grace Renshaw J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is frankly baffled that many Americans deny that climate change is occurring and/or that the world's burgeoning human population has played a role in increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. "You have to not believe in chemistry to not accept what's happening to the climate or just not accept the theory of the earth's biosphere—that carbon dioxide is what allowed life to occur, but that you can have too much of it," he said. "We need to adapt to the climate change that we can't avoid, and there's a lot to be debated about what we should do about it."

Ruhl, who joined Vanderbilt's law faculty in summer 2011 as the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in Law, suspects that much climate change skepticism is motivated more by fear of new government regulations with possible economy-dampening consequences than by actual doubts about climate change. His research on land use policy and environmental regulation speaks in part to skeptics of this variety because it advocates policies and regulations that "harmonize" environmental and economic benefits. "Sometimes you need to take an environmental good and pair it with an economic good to get things accomplished," he said. Not surprisingly, his approach does not always find a receptive ear among committed environmentalists. "They say this is 'monetizing nature,'" Ruhl said. "But if you can't talk money, you're not really at the table."

Ruhl's pragmatic approach cuts to the core of the debate. One of his research projects involves analyzing the real economic consequences of losing natural resources and the ecosystem services and benefits they provide, such as clean water and air, pollination, and protection from erosion and the effects of extreme weather. Frequent flooding along the Mississippi River, a problem now intensified in some areas because of levees built to protect other areas, affords a current example of the economic trade-offs Ruhl believes should be considered before an ecosystem is altered. "We know how costly it is when we experience a flood and how costly it is to guard against it technologically with levees," Ruhl said. "When we alter an ecosystem, we may start paying for a service nature provided, or we may just lose all or part of that service. And we may also create a costly problem somewhere else."

In addition to assessing the costs of losing natural ecosystems and other resources, Ruhl also seeks to quantify the economic benefits of preserving beneficial ecosystems. "We don't always account for the economic value we gain from an intact forest or wetland when we make decisions about conserving that resource," he said. For example, decisions regarding forest preservation, Ruhl believes, should be based on "what those trees are doing for us," he said. "Are they helping preserve a wetland? Are they preventing erosion? Are they helping bring water into the soil to prevent drought?"

Ruhl's research has led to such policy improvements as bolstered protections for wetlands through the Clean Water Act, including a more careful, case-by-case evaluation of proposed projects. The original law had allowed businesses to use "credits" they "earned" by preserving a wetland in one area to gain the right to damage or destroy a wetland in another area. "That approach didn't account for the impact destroying certain wetlands would have on the broader environmental picture," Ruhl said. "Not all wetlands are equal."

Ruhl acknowledges that his approach raises a thorny problem: It would require businesses and governments to agree on a method or model for establishing economic value before making decisions regarding land use. This problem is compounded by the fact that such decisions may involve a host of individuals and entities with conflicting agendas, including federal, state and local governments, businesses, property owners, local citizens, and special interest and advocacy groups representing both environmental causes and industries.

“J.B. Ruhl is one of the top scholars working in the fields of environmental law, land use and property law today, and his current research is exploring how environmental law addresses climate change, which is an extremely important and timely focus.” —Dean Chris Guthrie, John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law

Ruhl is also an expert on the Endangered Species Act, a highly visible and controversial law because it affects most areas of the country. "The Endangered Species Act has become the icon of environmentalism in many people's minds," Ruhl said. "We're protecting species for no economic reason, just because of their intrinsic, ecological value." Although he believes the national ideal of protecting species is important and valuable, Ruhl is quick to point out that the value of protecting an endangered species is often difficult to quantify, and that local citizens bear the brunt—economically and otherwise—of the act's requirements. "An urban dweller in New York City is asking a farmer in California to not farm to protect a certain animal," Ruhl said. "Is that fair? We need to share the burden more evenly."

Ruhl also observes that the Act sometimes becomes an impediment to projects with real social benefits. "It's not always a 'black hat' versus 'white hat' debate," he said. "Some fights are green versus green." His most recent research, which examines the controversy surrounding wind power, illuminates one such conflict: wind energy operations that have run afoul of the Endangered Species Act. "Endangered bats and birds don't get along with big steel wind turbines in their flight patterns," he said. "We have to solve this very real problem, because we're not going to give up on renewable energy and we're not going to give up on endangered species conservation."

Ruhl's current projects include a history of the Endangered Species Act through cases that reached the Supreme Court, such as the controversial Tennessee Valley Authority Tellico Dam lawsuit over the endangered snail darter fish. He is also researching possible future climate change litigation and conducting an empirical analysis of climate change cases in U.S. courts. "Climate change is happening right now, and damage is being done, so we're going to have to adapt," he said. "What I'm examining is how environmental law will be influenced by the harm created by climate change."

Scholars and lawmakers are paying attention. His journal articles have been selected among the best in the field of environmental law six times from 1989 to 2011. Most recently, he was honored for an article co-authored with James Salzman of Duke Law School that outlined the scope of a conundrum: Congress frequently charges individual federal agencies with addressing "massive problems" such as climate change, which have dimensions that extend beyond any single agency's power to regulate activity or implement change. As an example of one possible solution, the authors point to the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, a network formed 15 years ago to address the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico created by soil erosion and runoff containing nitrogen fertilizers, animal wastes and sewage. The task force connects five federal agencies, 12 state agencies, and the Native American tribes in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River basin. "The task force enables representatives of various agencies responsible for regulating farming activities, water reservoirs, river navigation and scientific activities to work together," Ruhl said.

Ruhl's insistence on research that yields practical results is an outgrowth of 12 years spent in private practice, most with Fulbright & Jaworski in Austin, Texas, at a time when land use and environmental law was emerging as a niche. To bolster his understanding of the developing field, he earned an LL.M. in environmental law at George Washington University while working as an associate and began publishing journal articles. Realizing how much he enjoyed teaching after a stint as an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas, he joined the faculty of the Southern Illinois University School of Law in 1994. There, he started work on a Ph.D. in geography that he completed over the next 12 years while teaching law full-time. "Over time, I'd grown more and more interested in the impact of humans on ecosystems and how we manage that, and there is geography to that," he said. "We now have a geographic information system filled with data about every square yard on the planet, and I wanted to use that technology and learn more about what geographers do. Studying geography opened up a whole new way of thinking for me as well as a whole new community."

Ruhl accepted an appointment at the Florida State University School of Law in 1999 and taught there until joining Vanderbilt's faculty in summer 2011. "I feel good that I'm a part of a relatively new way of approaching land management that could be very important," he said. "Approaches that explore the harmony that can exist between ecological conservation and economic prosperity seem to be capturing the attention of scientists, policy makers and academics." Joining Vanderbilt's faculty was attractive both because of "the strong, welcoming, collegial community," he said, and because "Vanderbilt Law School works well with other schools at Vanderbilt and nationally. I'm very impressed with the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and the Environment; it's an interdisciplinary collaboration that involves the Owen School, the School of Engineering, science departments and the Human and Organizational Development program. I wanted to be a part of that."

Ruhl's only major adjustment, he acknowledges, involved "embracing the SEC. But I'm meeting that challenge," he said.

Top of page
Top of Page