Climate Exceptionalism

37 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2009 Last revised: 17 Apr 2011

Date Written: 2009


'Climate exceptionalism' is the belief that the problem presented by climate change is different from the air pollution problems that we have addressed in the past. The Supreme Court appeared to have rejected that claim in Massachusetts v. EPA, when it held that greenhouse gases are 'pollutants' within the meaning of the Clean Air Act. But climate exceptionalism persists as writers emphasize the differences between climate change and traditional air pollution, and as they question whether the entire 'pollution paradigm' is appropriate for responding to climate change.

This essay explores the debate about climate exceptionalism. It identifies the ways in which climate change is like other air pollution problems and the ways in which it is different. It then analyzes how the debate concerning climate exceptionalism affects the preferred response to climate change. If climate change is simply the latest air pollution problem, then the tools that we have developed to respond to pollution can be deployed to address climate change. But if climate change is exceptional, then the lessons of air pollution regulation may be less suitable, and other strategies should be developed instead. The broader understanding of pollution as a phenomenon that exists outside of environmental law shows why multiple of responses to the emission of greenhouse gases is preferable to mitigation, adaptation, tolerance, or any other single purported solution to the problem of climate change.

Keywords: climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases, pollution, Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Mary Douglas, carbon dioxide, Clean Air Act, adaptation

Suggested Citation

Nagle, John Copeland, Climate Exceptionalism (2009). Environmental Law, Vol. 40, No. 1, p. 53, 2010; Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 09-37. Available at SSRN: or

John Copeland Nagle (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

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