Skip to Main Content

Search Results

faculty directory a-d e-k l-p q-z

Faculty Photo
Download Photo

John C. Dernbach

Emeritus Professor of Law
Founding Director, Environmental Law and Sustainability Center (2015-2023)


SSRN Papers
Curriculum Vitae

Phone: 717.541.1933

“We guide students to develop skills they need to practice law—to make connections they would not otherwise make, to do things they could not otherwise do, and to see themselves as professionals capable of serving the community. I get a lot of satisfaction out of “aha” moments.” 

John Dernbach is a nationally and internationally recognized authority on sustainable development, climate change, and environmental law.

Professor Dernbach writes and lectures widely on climate change, sustainable development, and environmental law. He has written more than 60 articles for law reviews and peer-reviewed journals, and has authored, coauthored, or contributed chapters to more than 30 books. He is the editor or principal author of four comprehensive assessments of U.S. sustainability efforts that make recommendations for future action. They are Governing for Sustainability (2023, co-edited with Scott E. Schang), Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (2012), Agenda for a Sustainable America (2009) and Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002). He is also the coauthor, with Matthew Bogoshian and Irma Russell, of Sustainability Essentials: A Leadership Guide for Lawyers (2022), which explains how lawyers can integrate sustainable development and climate change action into their law practice. He and Professor Michael Gerrard edited Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States (Environmental Law Institute Press 2019), a comprehensive assessment and description of more than 1,000 legal tools that can be used to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. In addition, 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 has contributed to three landmark judicial decisions.  Professor Dernbach’s scholarship and advocacy helped persuade the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in two major decisions (Robinson Township v. Commonwealth (2013); Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (2017) to reinvigorate the Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution. Until those decisions, the Amendment, which recognizes the basic rights of Pennsylvania citizens to a clean environment, had been nearly dormant for more than four decades.  Dernbach was also one of four lawyers to co-author an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of 18 prominent climate scientists, including two Nobel laureates. In 2007, the Supreme Court held that that EPA’s denial of a petition to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles was arbitrary and capricious. The majority opinion reflects the climate change science described in the brief, not the view of the science expressed by EPA in denying the petition. This case provides the foundation for much federal regulation of greenhouse gases.

In two stints totaling near 15 years, he worked at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection). During this time, he had a major role in drafting comprehensive and nationally recognized reforms to Pennsylvania’s mining and waste programs. He was the primary drafter of Pennsylvania’s recycling legislation, under which more than two million tons of recyclable material are diverted from landfills each year. He was also a primary drafter of comprehensive regulations for municipal waste and residual waste (industrial waste that is not legally hazardous). More recently, he directed the department’s policy office, where he was responsible for developing and coordinating policy and regulatory initiatives for the department and for advising the secretary on land use, energy, watershed protection, performance-based decision making, and other issues.

Professor Dernbach is also the primary author of a classic legal writing text (A Practical Guide to Legal Writing and Legal Method) as well as a book to assist students with writing law school exams (Writing Essay Exams to Succeed in Law School (Not Just Survive).

Professor Dernbach's official retirement was at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year, and the university awarded him emeritus status at the law school in February 2023. He continues to be active on climate change, sustainable development, and environmental law.

  • Environmental Law
  • Property
  • International Law
  • International Environmental Law
  • Sustainability and the Law
  • Climate Change


BS, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, summa cum laude
JD, University of Michigan, cum laude


Director, Office of Policy, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Director, Advanced Science and Research Team, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Assistant Counsel, Special Assistant to the Director, Bureau of Waste Management, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources
Special Assistant, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources
Staff Attorney, American Lung Association of Michigan
Legal Writing Instructor, Wayne State University Law School

Bar Admissions

United States Supreme Court


American Bar Association
American College of Environmental Lawyers
American Law Institute
Pennsylvania Bar Association

Selected Media Coverage

On May 23, 2023, John Dernbach co-wrote an article examining the lawsuit brought against Big Oil by the city of Honolulu after massive coastline loss.

John Dernbach was quoted in a story on January 20, 2023 regarding a recent opinion from the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

John Dernbach was mentioned for his upcoming participation in an event during the United Nations Climate Change Conference on October 18, 2022.

In a July 1, 2022 article, John Dernbach provides analysis on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the EPA does not have the authority to mandate carbon emissions from existing power plants. 

John Dernbach co-authored an article on May 28, 2022 focused on fighting climate change. 

As Maine considers a constitutional amendment to ensure a clean environment, John Dernbach discussed how it could impact the Pine Tree State in an 4/3/2022 article. 

John Dernbach provided comments in a 3/18/22 article on how Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson stands to impact cases related to climate change that are expected to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

John Dernbach talked with Smart Talk show host Scott LaMar on 1/30/22 about his future plans following retirement related to environmental health and advocacy, including climate change. 

The Buffalo News
John Dernbach commented on 10/24/21 regarding the paper's endorsements of a New York state ballot proposal to establish clean air, water, and a healthful environment as a right in that state's constitution. 

NPR State Impact
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 2/24/17
Townships accursed of ailing to enforce ordinances over Mariner East 2

Lockport Union Sun & Journal
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 1/1/17
Groups seek NY constitutional right to clean air, water

John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 10/7/16
Pa. Cases Could Pave Clearer Path for Local Fracking Laws

John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 10/3/16
PA Supreme Court Rules with Environmentalists over Remaining Issues in Act 13

NPR's State Impact
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 9/29/16
Attorney for PUC says "small cadre" trying to kill gas industry

NPR State Impact
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 9/1/16
Gas drillers lose case over well permit requirements

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Dernbach was quoted on 8/2/16
The kids don't have a clear right

John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 6/4/16
Sustainable Investing Gains Ground in Boardrooms Everywhere

Outside Magazine
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 5/27/16
The Newest Legal Tool to Fight Climate Change Is as Old as Ancient Rome 

Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN)
John Dernbach was interviewed on 3/30/16 (no link available)

NPR's State Impact
John Dernbach provided expert commentary on 3/9/16
Pa. Supreme Court weighs major gas drilling laws 

The Morning Call
John Dernbach was quoted on 11/26/15
Trash Talk? Two Lehigh Valley landfills say they are fast running out of space

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Power Source
John Dernbach was quoted on 11/26/15
Court to hear case on Pa.'s conservation duty

NPR State Impact
John Dernbach was mentioned on 11/3/15
Supreme Court race could hold the key to future environmental rulings

Environment Magazine
John Dernbach and James May, co-authored article on 02/06/15
Can Shale Gas Help Accelerate the Transition to Sustainability?

Bloomberg Businessweek, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Eagleford Texas
John Dernbach, quoted on Commonwealth Court opinion on Shale wells
A nuanced decision on oil, gas revenue from shale wells (Bloomberg Businessweek on 01/13/15)
A nuanced decision on oil, gas revenue from shale wells (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 01/13/15)
A nuanced decision on oil, gas revenue from shale wells (Eagleford Texas on 01/13/15)

Daily KOS
John Dernbach, mentioned on 12/31/14
Why are 60 Progressive House Democrats Trying to Reverse 40 Years of Clean Air Act Progress?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Dernbach, announced as a speaker on 10/26/14
Symposium on Jonas Salk focuses on his work in sustainability

The Times-Tribune
John Dernbach, quoted on 09/04/14
Residents beat gas company in Lycoming County zoning case (subscription may be required)

Philadelphia Daily News
John Dernbach, quoted on 08/18/14
Also shredding its Constitution...Pennsylvania

Environment and Energy Publishing
John Dernbach, quoted on 08/18/14
LAW: Enviros push 'public trust' as trump card over oil and gas influence

The Denver Post, The Daily News
John Dernbach, quoted on ordinances and bans related to oil and gas drilling of shale formations
Oil, gas boom taps rush of ordinances and bans across the U.S. (Denver Post on 07/27/14)
Oil, gas boom taps rush of ordinances and bans across the U.S. (Daily News on 07/26/14)

Colorado Public Radio
John Dernbach, quoted on 07/21/14
Explained: The Colo. ballot initiatives that would limit oil and gas development (Dernbach is quoted in the audio clip)

NPR's State Impact
John Dernbach, quoted on 07/17/14
Commonwealth Court throws out several challenges to Act 13, including ‘doctor gag rule’ [UPDATED]

The Patriot-News
John Dernbach, mention of an interview on 07/10/14
Pennsylvania's Environmental Rights Amendment to be spotlighted by panel

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
John Dernbach, quoted on 05/13/14
Appeals court to hear arguments on 4 sections of Act 13

WCAU-TV NBC, San Francisco Chronicle, Lancaster Online, The Patriot-News
John Dernbach, quoted on Franklin Kury
Court Vindicates Ex-Lawmaker's Environmental Work (WCAU-TV NBC on 04/12/14)
Court vindicates ex-lawmaker's environmental work (San Francisco Chronicle on 04/12/14)
Court vindicates ex-lawmaker's environmental work (Lancaster Online on 04/12/14)
A Green Ruling: Franklin Kury and the 40-year fight for clean air and water in Pennsylvania (The Patriot-News on 04/09/14)

Pittsburgh City Paper
John Dernbach, quoted on 03/26/14
Public Trusts: Proposed fracking under Deer Lakes Park could run afoul of state constitution

York Daily Record
John Dernbach, quoted on 03/20/14
Act 13 court battle: What's still at stake?

The Express
John Dernbach, quoted on 03/18/14
What’s still at stake in the Act 13 court battle?

State Impact NPR Blog
John Dernbach, quoted on 03/14/14
What’s still at stake in the Act 13 court battle?

Pennsylvania Cable Network
John C. Dernbach, served as a guest during special program on 01/27/14
Program on Pennsylvania's Act 13, the Marcellus Shale, and the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling (no link available)

WITF-FM's Radio Smart Talk
John C. Dernbach, interviewed on 01/21/14
Smart Talk: the PA Supreme Court's shale decision and the quest for affordable artist housing in York(audio available)

The Philadelphia Inquirer
John Dernbach, quoted on 01/12/14
Court decision may have big impact on drilling

The Morning Call
John Dernbach, quoted on 01/06/14
Corbett to state Supreme Court: Undo fracking ruling

faculty directory a-d e-k l-p q-z