Environmental lawyer and scholar Rachel Rothschild joins Michigan Law faculty.
Rachel Rothschild’s connection to the environment runs deep. She grew up in Massachusetts reading Henry David Thoreau and exploring conservation areas protected by the Audubon Society.
“If I hadn't ended up a law professor, I think I would have become a nature writer to motivate people to do something about protecting the environment,” said Rothschild, whose undergraduate major at Princeton was the history of science, with a concentration in environmental studies and creative writing.
Rothschild is living a variation of that vision: As a lawyer and legal scholar, she seeks to inform others, and thus compel action, to address climate change and other pollution problems.
My goal is to look historically at what has worked and not worked when the judiciary reviews the underlying scientific justifications for environmental regulations—and to suggest ways we can ensure appropriate judicial oversight without crippling agency actions that will protect human health and the environment.
Her book, Poisonous Skies: Acid Rain and the Globalization of Pollution (University of Chicago Press, 2019) builds on her passion for understanding the science of climate change and the political implications and challenges around global warming—a subject that first piqued her interest as an undergrad.
“I found myself interested in the intersection of science, law, and policy, and the uses and misuses of science in the political and regulatory process,” said Rothschild.
Exploring the intersection of climate change history and science with law and policy
It was after graduating from Princeton that she first became interested in acid rain and its implications for climate change, which would eventually lead to her writing Poisonous Skies.
Shortly after President Obama took office—a time when significant advances in environmental legislation seemed possible—Rothschild went to work for an environmental law practice in Washington, D.C.
Soon after, the Canadian Embassy approached the firm. They were curious about legal precedents that might inform new regulations on a global scale.
Rothschild started doing research and soon decided that acid rain was the best example of a prior fossil fuel problem that was transboundary in nature, requiring difficult decisions around energy systems like balancing our need for heating homes and driving cars with a serious pollution issue.
“I was inspired by that experience to closely study the history and science and law and policy involved in acid rain and draw some lessons for how we can best deal with climate change,” she recalled.
Rothschild went on to earn a PhD in history from Yale University, where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, followed by a JD at New York University School of Law, where she was a Furman Academic Scholar.
Now, two years later, she is joining Michigan Law as an assistant professor. This follows a stint as a legal fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity, where she remains an affiliated scholar.
“I felt such a sense of intellectual curiosity about my work among the Michigan Law faculty and excitement around the scholarship I want to do in environmental law,” she said. “I am thrilled to be part of this community.”
Forging new research into climate change litigation and regulation of toxic substances
At Michigan Law, Rothschild will teach environmental law and policy and continue researching her latest projects, which look at climate change litigation as well as the past and present regulation of toxic substances.
“Toxic substances have been a neglected area in environmental protection in the United States,” Rothschild said, adding that it is the least regulated type of pollution.
Soon, she hopes to publish her paper examining the EPA’s failed attempt to ban asbestos at the end of the Reagan administration with some lessons for how we can try to better use science and cost-benefit analysis to regulate chemicals.
Rothschild will also be examining how the process of judicial review of agency actions influences the type of science and economics used in regulations.
“The courts are using their oversight authority pretty aggressively these days to police the types of science that get used in the regulatory process,” she said. “My goal is to look historically at what has worked and not worked when the judiciary reviews the underlying scientific justifications for environmental regulations—and to suggest ways we can ensure appropriate judicial oversight without crippling agency actions that will protect human health and the environment.”
Despite the challenges the world faces with climate change, Rothschild, who has two young sons, remains optimistic for the future.
“Look, we've dealt with acid rain. It hasn't gone away, but it's much improved. We've also prevented the depletion of the ozone layer,” she said. “I think we have every reason to be hopeful and to continue to fight for progress on these issues.”