By Meredith Carroll
Today, Eric Laschever (F’77) is an environmental attorney and law professor who recently contributed to a landmark federal climate lawsuit.
When he participated in the very first Williams-Mystic semester in Fall 1977, Eric was part of an educational experiment.
“It was the hardest semester I had at Williams,” Eric says. “[Founding director] Ben Labaree had to prove to the College that this was going to be rigorous.”
For Eric, Williams-Mystic proved to be the beginning of his career. Eric conducted marine policy research on the Law of the Sea conference, then ongoing in New York. In the course of his research, he visited the United Nations, where a staffer at the treaty negotiations recommended an interdisciplinary master’s program in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.
Eric ultimately attended the program. Afterward, he worked for the State of Alaska for several years before landing in Washington, DC, where he earned his law degree from Georgetown.
From there, Eric pursued a career in environmental law and land use law. It was through this work — and through his former advisor at University of Washington ‚— that he developed an interest in how the law can address climate change. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Eric remembers climate change-related issues cropping up around statues throughout his field: The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and more.
At around the same time, Eric and his wife, Eulalie Sullivan, became involved in sailing education. They began volunteering with a science under sail program geared at middle– and high-school students. The program was founded by two Williams-Mystic alumni, Ellie Linen Low and Sophie Johnston.
Near the end of the decade, Eric proposed a course on climate change law, which he taught at Seattle University Law School for several years. Eric resumed teaching again in 2018 — this time in the same University of Washington program where he’d gotten his master’s degree.
As Eric renewed his focus on climate change litigation, he encountered Juliana v. United States: a major climate lawsuit to which he would ultimately contribute.
Juliana v. U.S. began making its way through the federal court system in 2015. In the case, 21 youth plaintiffs (including Kelsey Juliana, for whom the case is named) assert that the federal government, through its affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated the constitutional rights of its youngest citizens to life, liberty, and property as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
In the five years since it was first brought, the case has been wending its way through the federal courts system. During that time, Eric became involved with Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that is advocating on behalf of the defendants in Juliana. In fall 2019, Eric arranged an introduction to one of the lead lawyers on the case.
Early this year, Eric wrote and filed a brief on behalf of the expert witnesses in the case.
As Eric describes it, Juliana draws on two areas of law: constitutional law and public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine stands for the idea that the government holds certain resources in common for everyone. Attorneys drew on constitutional law, meanwhile, to argue that the government had a special duty to protect these resources on the behalf of children — a group both uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and unable to act to protect itself from these effects.
Neither area of the law has historically been applied to climate change. That’s a common theme, Eric says, in legal actions brought to address climate change.
“We talk a lot about climate change adaptation and it’s not only the natural world that needs adaptation if we continue on our current trajectory. All of the institutions that we have created to deal with other issues are going to need to adapt” as well, Eric says. In most legal action addressing climate change, he says, “lawyers [have] had to come up with novel legal theories” that expand the scope of existing environmental legislation to include climate change.
It’s a valuable strategy, Eric emphasizes. But as he sees it, this need for adaptation also highlights the lack of any federal regulatory framework specific to climate change. The private sector, he says, could play a crucial role in changing that. With enough climate change-related legal action brought under a variety of regulatory frameworks, he suggests, industry may well decide it is preferable to be regulated under “a federal scheme that actually is tailored to address” climate change and its effects.
When it comes to Juliana v. US, the fight continues. On January 17, the most recent panel of judges to hear the case issued a divided 2-1 ruling to dismiss it. The brief that Eric wrote is part of the latest round of efforts to urge the federal courts system to reconsider the case.
For Eric, a journey that began with Williams-Mystic’s first semester has led to the front lines of climate litigation. It’s a journey, Eric reflects, that also has to do with his connection to the ocean.
“The thing that brought me to Williams-Mystic in the first place,” he says, “was that I had grown up in New Jersey, and spent a lot of time at the New Jersey shore. I had salt water in my veins, as it were. I’d grown up sailing, and I’d really had that connection to the water.”
In Williams-Mystic, Eric saw an opportunity to retain and strengthen that connection. He participated in a boat-building lab where he and his classmates built a dory. In the back of his mind, he dreamed about “sailing off” in a boat like that.
In 2010, he got the opportunity to fulfill that dream. He and Eulalie bought a sailboat: the Elizabeth Jean, named for their daughters. Together, they spent four years sailing from Seattle to Maine via the Panama Canal — a trip that included a stopover in Mystic, Connecticut.
“It reconnected me to my first loves of sailing and the ocean,” Eric says.
His recent experiences with sailing and sailing education have given Eric a new perspective on his own memories of sailing at Williams-Mystic.
“When you are taking other people out on sailboats,” Eric reflects, “you’re taking a risk that you think is justified because the educational experience is going to be something that you could not provide them without taking the risk.”
This lesson applies to Eric’s own education.
Even now, Eric’s Williams-Mystic offshore voyage stands out as his “most memorable college experience.” He recalls standing under floodlights on deck at night, pulling sharks out of the Atlantic Ocean as part of a shark-tagging experiment. They brought a tuna on board, too, feasting on tuna steaks later that night.
They couldn’t have been far, Eric now realizes, from the waters where they’d swum earlier that day. It was thanks to the Gulf Stream that the class could swim in the Atlantic in mid-October — the same system that sustained the organisms that the sharks fed on.
The memory seemed so incredible that Eric questioned whether it was accurate. On a recent visit, Founding Director Ben Labaree confirmed that Eric’s recollection was correct.
“Professor Labaree took a lot of risks in setting up the Williams-Mystic program,” Eric now realizes. “For one thing, he had to give up his tenure at Williams College … But it was also risky to take a bunch of students out to sea” — to allow them to swim in the Gulf Stream by day, then pull sharks from those waters at night.
“And I’m sure that that’s how Ben approached not only the sailing component of what we did but the whole thing. I think he concluded [that], unless he took the risk that he did to set the program up, he couldn’t provide the educational experience that he thought was needed at that point in time. As a nation, and really internationally, we were putting this renewed focus on the ocean and on ocean resources.”
For Eric, the result was an experience that not only launched his career but also helped sustain a lifelong connection to the ocean.
As Eric remembers Ben Labaree advising him: “‘It’s not what you remember that’s important. It’s what you do with what you remember.’”