John C. Dernbach
Distinguished Professor of Law
Co-Director, Environmental Law Center

B.S., University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
J.D., University of Michigan

Phone: 717.541.1933

John C. Dernbach is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Widener's Harrisburg campus and co-director of Widener’s two-campus Environmental Law Center. He teaches environmental law, property, international law, international environmental law, sustainability and the law, and climate change. His research concentrates on sustainable development, climate change, and environmental law. Professor Dernbach received a B.S. summa cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1975, and a J.D. cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1978, where he served as Legislative Notes Editor for the Michigan Journal of Law Reform. He is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and the U. S. Supreme Court. 

Professor Dernbach leads the only nongovernmental project that comprehensively assesses U.S. sustainability efforts and makes recommendations for future actions. These reviews—three books and an article, all published by the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.—have been conducted approximately every five years since the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The most recent book, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, was published in June 2012. This book, prepared with 51 other contributing authors in a wide variety of disciplines and written in a single voice, provides a set of practical approaches to sustainability that can be used in any context. He also edited two prior assessments—Agenda for a Sustainable America (2009) and Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002). These two books each have more than 40 contributing authors from universities and law schools, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and state government. The project began with a review conducted in a Widener seminar and published with his students as an article in 1997. 

He coauthored an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of eighteen prominent climate scientists. The brief argued that EPA had mischaracterized or misrepresented the relevant science in deciding not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. On April 2, 2007, the Court held that EPA erred by not controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The majority opinion reflects the science described in the brief, and the dissenting opinions do not contradict it. This decision is generally recognized as a landmark in environmental law. 

Professor Dernbach has written more than forty articles for law reviews and peer-reviewed journals, and has authored, coauthored, edited, or contributed chapters to twenty books or book-length projects. He has lectured to local, state, national, and international audiences on environmental law, climate change, and sustainable development. He received the President's Award for Outstanding Achievement from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Alumni Association in 2002. In 2008, he received the Douglas E. Ray Excellence in Faculty Scholarship Award. On April 22, 2010, he received an award for distinguished service to the profession from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Environmental and Energy Law Section.

Immediately following graduation from Michigan Law School, Professor Dernbach taught legal writing at Wayne State University (1978-79), served as a staff attorney to the American Lung Association of Michigan (1979-80), and coauthored a widely-used and influential legal writing text, first published in 1981, that is now considered a classic in the field. A Practical Guide to Legal Writing and Legal Method (Wolters Kluwer, 4th edition 2010). 

Over the next dozen years, Professor Dernbach worked on the development and implementation of nationally recognized programs for regulating coal and non-coal mining, municipal solid waste, and residual or industrial solid waste for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources. During this time he served as assistant counsel (1981-87), special assistant (1987-92), and Director of the Department's Advanced Science and Research Team (1992-93). 

Professor Dernbach joined the faculty at Widener in 1993 and was promoted to full professor in 2001. He has taught for Widener at the University of Nairobi in Kenya (1996), Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia (1999), the Institute for Graduate Studies in Geneva, Switzerland (2003) and Università Cá Foscari in Venice, Italy (2007). In 2003-05, he took a leave of absence from Widener and returned to serve as policy director in the now renamed Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. 

He is a former chair and a current vice-chair of the ABA Committee on Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Ecosystems, and Climate Change. In June 2013, he was appointed to the ABA Task Force on Sustainable Development, which is charged with making recommendations “regarding the involvement of the ABA in implementing sustainable development matters worldwide.” Professor Dernbach is a past council member for the ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources. He is also a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law. From 2005 to 2008, he served on the Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the National Research Council Committee that, in Sustainability and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011), made recommendations on how to institutionalize sustainability at EPA. He is a former Senior Warden and co-chair of the environmental stewardship committee at St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg.

Selected Recent Publications and Briefs

  • The Sustainable Relationship: What the United States and the United Kingdom Can Teach Each Other About Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the National Level, Envtl. F., May-June 2013, at 30 (with Andrea Ross)
  • Sustainability as a Means of Improving Environmental Justice, 19 Missouri J. Envtl. & Sustainability L. 1 (2012) (with Patricia E. Salkin & Donald A. Brown).
  • Next Generation Recycling and Waste Reduction: Building on the Success of Pennsylvania’s 1988 Legislation, 21 Widener L. J. 285 (2012) (with Widener University School of Law Seminar on Climate Change). 
  • The “Cash for Clunkers” Program: A Sustainability Evaluation, 42 Tol. L. Rev. 467 (2011) (with Marianne Tyrrell). 
  • Creating the Law of Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development, 28 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 614 (2011). 
  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation: New Legal Tools and Opportunities, Nat. Resources & Env’t, Spring 2011, at 7 (with Robert B. McKinstry, Jr. & Darin Lowder). 
  • The Essential and Growing Role of Legal Education in Achieving Sustainability, 60 J. Legal Educ. 489 (2011).
  • Making the States Full Partners in the National Climate Change Effort: A Necessary Element for Sustainable Economic Development, 40 Envtl. L. Rep. (Envtl. L. Inst.) 10597 (2010) (with Thomas D. Peterson & Robert B. McKinstry, Jr.).
  • The Ethical Responsibility to Reduce Energy Consumption, 37 Hofstra L. Rev. 985 (2009) (with Donald A. Brown).
  • An Agenda for Sustainable Communities, 4 Houston Energy & Envtl. L. & PolIcy J. 170 (2009).
  • Navigating the U.S. Transition to Sustainability: Matching National Governance Challenges with Appropriate Legal Tools, 44 Tulsa L. Rev. 93 (2008).
  • Climate Change Law: An Introduction, 29 Energy L. J. 1 (2008) (with Seema Kakade).
  • Achieving Early and Substantial Greenhouse Gas Reductions Under a Post-Kyoto Agreement, 20 Geo. Int’l Envtl. L. Rev. 573 (2008).
  • Developing a Comprehensive Approach to Climate Change Policy in the United States: Integrating Levels of Government and Economic Sectors, 26 Va. Envtl. L. J. 227 (2008) (with Thomas D. Peterson & Robert B. McKinstry, Jr.).
  • Harnessing Individual Behavior to Address Climate Change: Options for Congress, 26 Va. Envtl. L. J. 107 (2008).


  • Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (Environmental Law Institute Press, 2012) (with 51 contributing authors). 
  • Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Research Council, Sustainability and the U.S. EPA (2011) (with 11 other members of Committee).
  • Federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Laws, in The Law of Clean Energy: Efficiency and Renewables 25 (Michael Gerrard, ed., American Bar Association, 2011) (with Marianne Tyrrell).
  • Environmental Laws and Sustainability (2011) in Sustainability (special issue of on-line peer review journal), available at (editor with Joel A. Mintz; ten papers plus introduction).
  • & Richard V. Singleton II et al., A Practical Guide to Legal Writing and Legal Method, 4th ed. (Wolters Kluwer, 2010).
  • Writing Essay Exams to Succeed in Law School (Not Just to Survive), 3rd ed. (Wolters Kluwer, 2009).
  • Agenda for a Sustainable America (Environmental Law Institute Press, John C. Dernbach ed., Environmental Institute Press, 2009).