Partner Profiles

Sarah E. Light, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics, Wharton

November 12, 2015

Sarah Light joined the teaching faculty of The Wharton School since 2013 and her previous appointments include Columbia University, Lecturer, Earth Institute; Brooklyn Law School, Visiting Assistant Professor; Fordham Law School, Adjunct Associate Professor.  She has taught Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (LGST806) and Environmental Management: Law & Policy (LGST815).  Recently published in the Environmental Law & Policy Annual Review, the Boston College Law Review, and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, Professor Light is also often called upon for media interviews.

Professor Light has been directly involved in “greening” coursework at Penn by twice participating in the Integrating Sustainability Across the Curriculum program. As part of ISAC, she partnered with a summer student research intern to infuse elements of environmental sustainability into Environmental Management mentioned above, and Responsibility in Professional Services (LGST612) with Eric Orts of Wharton.

Q: One of the goals stated in Penn’s Climate Action Plan 2.0, released in October 2014, is “to make climate change and sustainability part of the curriculum and educational experience available to all students.” Why in your opinion is it important to Penn students, particularly Wharton students and Penn Law students, to have an understanding of sustainability as part of their course work?

I think it is essential for all students to have an understanding of their impact on the environment and of principles of sustainability more broadly.  In my view, the greatest single challenge we face in our time is the changing climate.  To address that will require not only technological advances, but also policy innovation, and changing norms of behavior.  I expect many of our students to become leaders in their fields – law, policy, psychology, economics, management – or perhaps something else entirely.  Taking the principles they learn here at Penn about sustainability into the world will, I hope, help them address some of these challenges. Our students can make an enormous difference. 

Q: You teach a class called, “Environmental Management: Law & Policy.” Can you explain what students should expect to learn in this class?

The overall goal of the course is to help students think critically about three areas:

(1) the relationship between business and the natural environment,

(2) the existing legal and policy framework of environmental protection and its effects on what business managers are charged to do, and

(3) the potential to effect change in that legal and policy environment.

In the class, we learn about how different actors – Courts, Congress, States, agencies, and private actors – have all participated in the setting and enforcement of environmental standards.  We learn about what instruments they use (such as taxes or prescriptive rules, for example), and the relative merits of such policy instruments.  Finally, we examine the issue of how to promote sustainability and protect the environment from the perspective of firm managers. 

Q: What did you learn from the student perspective while/after teaching this class?

First, I learned that non-law students really enjoy grappling with complex normative debates that motivate challenging legal cases.  We read several of the most important Supreme Court cases on environmental law and policy – and the students are deeply engaged.  Second, I love teaching a class that includes not only undergraduates from Wharton, the College and the School of Engineering, but also M.B.A. students and Masters students in the MES program.  In my first year, I also had a few Design students.  With this mix of students, what could otherwise be an abstract debate over what obligations firm managers have to protect the environment turns instead into a concrete discussion in which students are able to bring their work experience and perspectives into the classroom. 

Q: How do you encourage students to take the principles of environmental sustainability that they learn here into actual practice in their own jobs after Penn?

In my course, I encourage students to think broadly about what it means to work in the field of sustainability.  If they want to do environmental policy work, there are many ways to do that.   The United States Environmental Protection Agency gets a lot of attention, but states, local governments, private non-profit organizations and private firms are all engaged in taking sustainability seriously. 

Q: In what ways would you like to see the University used as a laboratory for ideas in environmental sustainability?

I have written an article called The New Insider Trading: Environmental Markets within the Firm, which examines the ways in which private actors (specifically Microsoft and British Petroleum), use the same kinds of market-based instruments as public actors to combat climate change and reduce emissions.  Microsoft adopted a private carbon fee several years ago, and is still using the fee.  BP adopted an emissions trading system in the early 2000s, and the program ended when BP achieved its goal of a 10 percent reduction in emissions.  More recently, Yale University announced its intention to adopt a pilot private carbon fee, which would force constituencies at the University to pay an internal “fee” based upon their emissions, with the aim of reducing emissions.  I know that Penn is already doing a great deal to promote sustainability on campus, but I would be curious to see how such a private carbon fee would work here.