If Trees Have Standing, Can We Sue Kudzu For Violating the Clean Air Act?

In 1972, Christopher Stone published his seminal book “Should Trees Have Standing?” That same year, Justice Douglas posed essentially the same question in his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, in which he argued that inanimate objects should have standing “to sue for their own preservation.”

I hadn’t thought of this for some time, but was reminded of the issue by an article in GreenWire this week, reporting on a study which has concluded that kudzu, an invasive species which is, one might say rhetorically, taking over the southeastern United States, increases NOx levels and thus leads to the formation of ground-level ozone. Indeed, the study concluded that if kudzu does in fact take over – to the point where it covers all non-urban, non-agricultural soil – the number of areas exceeding the ozone NAAQS would increase by more than one-third.

Now, what’s the point of this other than the opportunity for a snappy headline? Perhaps nothing. I love a snappy headline. On the other hand, the report does serve as a useful reminder that environmental science and policy are really complicated. I do not use this complexity to suggest that the government should not act in the face of uncertainty, but I do believe that it can serve as a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge and the appropriateness of a prudent caution before we assume we know all the answers. 

At a practical level, can EPA set up an offset program that would allow new sources of NOx to move forward if they remove a certain number of acres of kudzu? After all, no one likes kudzu, anyway.

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