From Shark-Tagging to Climate Change Law: Eric Laschever’s (F’77) Williams-Mystic Story

By Meredith Carroll

Image shows Eric smiling aboard a small sailing vessel, evident from the lines neatly pinned and coiled behind him. He is wearing sunglasses
Eric Laschever (F’77) aboard the SV Elizabeth Jean

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. 

Image shows three college students slumped side by side, napping in a cozy, wood-paneled nook belowdecks, with two bunks just visible in a wall to the right
Eric and his classmates about the Westward during their Williams-Mystic semester. From left to right: Carrie (Green) Yardley, Eric Laschever, Deborah Costa McKew, Andrew Mitchell, and (above) Lani Peterson.

“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.’”

In Williams-Mystic Marine & Coastal Policy Research Group, Fall 2018 Students Put Learning into Action

In Fall 2018, Williams-Mystic students are working with partner organizations to come up with concrete solutions to real-world marine and coastal policy issues.

For most college students, early December means late nights spent studying in the library and early mornings spent poring over exam booklets.

For Fall 2018 students at Williams-Mystic, the end of the semester might involve recommending sustainable oyster farming methods to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, or suggesting ways the California State Lands Commission can incorporate social justice into its plans for coping with sea level rise.

These are just two examples of how Fall 2018 students have, as part of their marine policy class, partnered with outside organizations to craft solutions to real-world marine and coastal policy issues.

The students are working as part of the Williams-Mystic Marine and Coastal Policy Research Group, made up of four small teams. Each small group partners with a different organization. This semester, these client organizations included: Save the Bay, an environmental advocacy group for Rhode Island’s Narraganset Bay; the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land conservation organization focused on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; the California State Lands Commission; and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a nonprofit marine science center and research institute.

Each team completed research that culminated in a policy brief, which offers concrete solutions for the small group’s client organization to implement.

In crafting these policy briefs, the student researchers drew on knowledge from their marine policy class. They interviewed dozens of stakeholders, including attorneys, congressional staffers, commercial fishermen, and scientists.

The students also incorporated knowledge from a variety of disciplines. The group working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, for instance, used a variety of ecological models to assess how oyster aquaculture might affect coastal ecosystems in Maine. Students working with the California State Lands Commission, meanwhile, investigated tools the Commission could use to identify environmental justice communities.

This week, the students’ work culminated not just in four policy briefs (look below to read the briefs in full!), but also in presentations to each of the four client organizations. At several of these organizations, students connected with Williams-Mystic alumni, including Jonathan Labaree (S’84) at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

IMG_4914 2
A research team presents their findings to the Narragansett Baykeeper and policy and legal staff from Save the Bay. They explored how the advocacy organization can partner with scientists, fishermen, and other stakeholders to improve how fisheries stock are managed.
For the client organizations, the presentations and briefs were an opportunity to learn more about issues they might not have had the time and resources to delve into otherwise.
For the student researchers, the projects have been a chance to learn by incorporating knowledge from a wide range of disciplines in order to solve real-world problems — and to meet people active in marine and coastal policy from across the country while doing so.
You can read the students’ briefs for yourself below:
To hear more, you can also attend the Williams-Mystic Marine and Coastal Policy Research Group’s public presentations!
The presentations will take place on Tuesday, December 18, 2018 from 9–11 am in the Masin Room of the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Thompson Exhibition Building. (Simply ask visitor reception staff at the Museum for directions to the Williams-Mystic presentations when you arrive.)

 

Curiosity About Environmental Issues Brought Christian Petrangelo (F’04) To Williams-Mystic

Christian Petrangelo (F’04) entered Williams-Mystic unsure whether he wanted to stay in the environmental side of science. He left ready to jump into a career in environmental law and policy.

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

The age-old question of “what are you going to major in?” is something every person going to college has to answer at some point. Christian Petrangelo (F’04) started his freshman year at Middlebury College thinking he was going to major, and eventually work, in environmental science. Over the next four years, his plans evolved.

“By the end of my freshman year, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in the environmental field or do something else,” Christian said. “During my sophomore year, I retreated from the environmental side of things a little bit.”

That same year, Christian saw a brochure for Williams-Mystic and was intrigued.

“It was an 8-and-a-half by 11, full-page brochure that was floating around Middlebury,” Christian said. “I went through it thoroughly and knew other students at Middlebury had done the program before but didn’t get the chance to talk to anyone who had done it.”  

In August 2004, Christian embarked on his Williams-Mystic journey.

“I wanted the interdisciplinary approach, not just the science. Williams-Mystic intrigued me because of the push on the social sciences. During the program, I took a lot away from policy and history,” Christian said. “Going to Mystic kept me on the path of going into an environmental career by allowing me to explore other options than environmental science, like environmental law.”

Christian enjoyed many things about life in Mystic and on the road.

“There were so many pranks during our semester,” Christian said. “I was in the program when Mallory House was down on Greenmanville [Ave.] We played so many practical jokes, all in good spirit and good taste. It was still early enough that we had landlines and those were used a lot during our pranks.”

As someone raised on the East Coast, Christian recalls the West Coast Field Seminar fondly because of how much it opened his eyes to the vast geographic differences among America’s coasts.

“I fell in love with California on that trip, but I truly enjoyed all of the field seminars,” Christian said.

Christian recalled sailing the Gulf of Maine aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer with lots of laughter.

“Sailing on the Cramer was my first tall ship experience. I grew up sailing small craft boats and thought I would not be affected by seasickness,” Christian said. “I did get seasick. I remember being in the lab on the ship and looking at a photo of Kramer from Seinfeld that was in there. I felt what was coming and ran out of the lab to throw up over the side. My roommate was also from the East Coast and he never got seasick.”

Exploring the Gulf Coast opened Christian’s eyes to thoughts, opinions, and lifestyles different from his own.

“When we were in Louisiana, we went out on a boat towards an oil platform. Listening to the lectures about it made me see a whole different perspective on the marine environment,” Christian said. “Our class got exposed to that industry whether we agreed with it or not. Being exposed to people and industries that I was not exposed to in New England was good for me.”

Regarding his entire Williams-Mystic experience, Christian was pleasantly surprised by the close relationships he built with his classmates and faculty members.

“For me, the change of environment and getting back on the East Coast gave me freedom. Going in, I did not know what to expect from the people and was shocked how tight the group was during the semester,” Christian said. “Also, I thoroughly appreciate the joy I got from experiential learning. I wasn’t just in front of a computer or in one location and that created an exciting experience for me.”

After his time at Williams-Mystic, Christian graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in history, worked as a paralegal for a few years, and then attended the London School of Economics, where he received a Master of Science in Environmental Policy. After he completed that program, he spent three years at Vermont Law School, where he received a Juris Doctorate in Environmental Law.

“At Vermont Law School, I didn’t do any semesters off campus but I did spend a summer interning in the Vermont Attorney General’s office and another summer with the Department of the Interior working on issues in the environmental and labor law fields,” Christian said. “I also did Vermont Law Review and that gave me more fulfilling professional experiences.”

Participating in Moot Court, an exercise that is part of the policy class curriculum at Williams-Mystic, benefited Christian in law school.

“It was one of the first times I was exposed to oral argument preparation. It helped me and so many of my classmates face and tackle the anxieties that come with having questions fired at you in front of other people,” Christian said. “Finishing it showed me that I could prepare and succeed, not spiral down and fail. It put me on a path towards law school because of how much I liked the engagement and intellectual rigor.”

Christian looks back at Williams-Mystic as his happiest semester in college.

“I really clicked with the people in my class. I had finally met people who were passionate about the ocean and marine studies just like me,” Christian said. “It was great to be in an environment where everyone was intrigued by the same thing.”

Christian has this to say to young Williams-Mystic alumni and Williams-Mystic students to come: keep an open mind about where you could go professionally. You might have one idea about what you want to do with your life and you may come out of school or another kind of experience wanting to do something else. There are a lot of pathways life could take you down, so trust your instincts.