Published: Aug. 16, 2022

Headshot of Professor Michael PappasMichael Pappas joins the Colorado Law faculty this fall as professor of law from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, where he taught since 2012. A preeminent voice in property, natural resource, and environmental law, his scholarship draws upon interdisciplinary influences associated with economics and political economy.

Pappas’ teaching experience includes serving as a Forrester Fellow and instructor in legal writing at Tulane University Law School, where he also taught international and domestic fisheries law. He also taught natural resources law as an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and served as an instructor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers PROSPECT Training Program, where he taught environmental law and regulation.

Q: Thanks for joining us, Prof. Pappas!

It’s my pleasure!

Q: These past few years have been unusual for all of us. Now that things are starting to feel a little more “normal,” what are you most looking forward to about the fall semester?

I find that fall semesters have a particular excitement and energy. New first-year students join the law school. Second and third years return from all sorts of summer experiences. Faculty have had a chance to develop new projects and ideas. The last few years have presented a number of barriers to fully connecting within a law school community, and this has dampened that excitement of fall. I am looking forward to having more opportunities to enjoy connecting and interacting with students and faculty colleagues outside of just classes and Zoom meetings. 

Q: What originally drew you toward property and natural resources law?

I think my interest grew out of a combination of disposition and experience. 

In disposition, I’ve always been curious about places. For as long as I can remember, when I would see something like a hillside or island or beach or wooded area or even an interesting building, I would be interested in seeing what it was like. I would want to check it out. From that impulse, the wanting to see something or go somewhere, it’s not a far leap to ask, "How do you get there?” as well as, "Who gets to go there?” As it turns out, that last question—“Who gets to go there?"—essentially asks a fundamental issue in property and natural resources law, which is, “Who gets to control who goes there, or uses that?" If you look around the physical environment and ask “who gets to control” that building or parcel of land or body of water or flock of ducks, you are usually asking a property or natural resource question, and I am fascinated by thinking about the answers to that kind of question.

Q: That’s such an interesting point. How did your early life experiences shape your interest in this area of the law?

I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was lucky to spend a fair amount of time in the brackish marshes of southeast Louisiana. Erosion is a major issue in those marshes; large areas of land disappear at an alarming rate. The erosion is so significant that you can see it firsthand. I remember when I first noticed it myself. As a teenager, I went fishing in an area of marsh that had numerous peninsulas of land and little islands covered in marsh grass. I returned to that exact same spot about a month later, and the peninsulas and islands were gone. It was now just open water. I became curious about what law could do regarding an issue like coastal erosion, which arose from a combination of policy choices and natural forces. That early experience helped point me toward environmental and natural resource law.

Q: Your work has involved quite a bit of interdisciplinary teaching and research collaborations. Could you explain what that means for a law professor? Will that be a part of your work at Colorado Law?

Many different perspectives inform law and policy. For example, environmental and natural resource law and policy rely on a variety of scientific, economic, and philosophical perspectives, just to name a few. In my opinion, the more one understands those different perspectives, the better one can understand, teach, argue, or implement the relevant law and policy. For that reason, I try to pursue and encourage interdisciplinary opportunities. The world is an interdisciplinary place. 

I certainly intend for interdisciplinary teaching and research to be part of my work at Colorado Law! Part of the challenge in that is finding collaborators in other disciplines, but I am enormously excited about the prospects that CU offers. 

Q: You studied English literature while at Stanford. Have your studies in that realm influenced your academic career or contributed to your pursuit of a law degree?

The thing I found most interesting in studying English literature was investigating the meaning of texts, especially when that was disputable. For instance, you and I might disagree about what a poem means. We might argue for a certain meaning based on the choice of words used, or potentially based on the author’s intent, or the context in which the poem was written. The same search for meaning occurs all the time in law, for instance when interpreting statutes or constitutions. The close study of written works and the inquiry into meaning was a major bridge for me between English literature and law.

Q: Can you share a bit about what you’re working on now?

I have a few projects going on now, but I am particularly excited to share a bit about a work in progress tentatively titled “Structuring Climate Policy.” Here is an abstract of the project.

Climate change is both global and local. Climate changing emissions are worldwide in aggregate, but they emanate from distinct individual sources. Climate impacts include global temperature rise as well as regional droughts or floods. Accordingly, climate policies have arisen at all jurisdictional levels: international, federal, state, and local. However, this jurisdictional fragmentation, along with the reticence of many jurisdictions to undertake any impactful climate response, has rendered current climate policies patchy, uncoordinated, and insufficient. Moreover, the urgent need for action to avert the worst climate impacts piles additional pressure on any adopted policies to be as effective and complementary as possible.  

Q: How interesting! What does your research suggest for how local jurisdictions can do more to combat climate change?

Against this backdrop, my project analyzes climate policy structures to help jurisdictions maximize the efficacy of their climate initiatives. It identifies the comparative advantages that international, federal, state, and local governments hold for certain types of policies, and it highlights complementary policies that reinforce each other across jurisdictions.
This project builds on my previous work, which observes that jurisdictions can adopt two basic policy structures to address harms: prevent harms or try to cure them. In applying this prevention-and-cure analysis to climate policy, this project reveals that different levels of government show competencies in different types of prevention or cure approaches. These structural observations yield some surprising results. For instance, contrary to the accepted theory that local governments have budgetary incentives to avoid proactively addressing local climate vulnerabilities, this analysis indicates that local governments, rather than larger jurisdictions, have a comparative advantage in implementing preventative policies to avoid climate harms (such as prospective buy-outs of vulnerable properties).
Through structural observations like these, this project provides jurisdictions with a framework to identify and amplify their comparative advantages, complement other jurisdictions’ approaches, and make the most of their climate policies.