Climate campaigners call for lawyers to warn clients of environmental risks

Climate campaigners call for lawyers to warn clients of environmental risks

Lawyers should be “ethically obliged” to advise clients of serious risks if they pursue projects inconsistent with the 1.5˚C global warming target, a group of lawyers and climate campaigners have said.

An open letter signed by more than 170 members of the legal profession, principally in England, warns that a failure to limit warming to 1.5˚C “risks mass loss of life and threatens the conditions for a stable civilisation, including the rule of law”.

The letter makes three proposals which it says regulators should “support and enforce”:

  1. Self-education: All lawyers must ensure they acquire and maintain understanding of a) the extreme risks of breaching the 1.5 ̊C limit; and b) the urgent action required by 2030 to prevent such breach, so that they can advise their clients accordingly.

  2. Client advice: Lawyers, including in-house and government lawyers, should be ethically obliged to advise their clients, where relevant and appropriate, of the serious risks (legal and otherwise) of pursuing any investment, project or transaction that is inconsistent with the pathway to 1.5 ̊C. Government lawyers should highlight the potential human rights violations not only of measures inconsistent with 1.5 ̊C but also measures which disproportionately criminalise protestors who raise the alarm.

  3. Duty to the court: Lawyers should support efforts by the judiciary to develop climate literacy, and in appropriate cases, ensure courts have access to relevant evidence concerning the climate emergency and have due regard to the compatibility of any investment, project or transaction with the 1.5 ̊C threshold. In prosecutions concerning climate protest, both prosecutors and defence lawyers should ensure the court is aware that a) breach of the 1.5 ̊C limit risks mass loss of life and the end of the rule of law and that b) there is substantial evidence that governments and businesses, individually and collectively, continue to pursue courses of action which they know to be inconsistent with that limit. The courts must apply the law to such cases, but lawyers must ensure that they do so on the basis of the relevant facts.

Margherita Cornaglia, a junior barrister and one of the drafters of the letter, said: “The legal profession is awakening to the impact that the climate and ecological crisis has and will continue to have on the application and development of legal principle.

“Junior lawyers and lawyers joining the profession are increasingly knowledgeable about climate law and litigation, increasingly concerned and increasingly motivated to be part of the solution, not the problem. The tides are changing.”

Jonathan Goldsmith, a member of the Law Society of England and Wales Council and chair of its policy and regulatory affairs committee, said: “The drafters of the letter are right to point out that the consequences risk the rule of law itself, which is what we all serve.”

Marc Willers KC, one of the signatories to the letter, said: “The rule of law should be the bedrock of our societies. As the evidence mounts that human-made climate change poses an extreme threat to society, nothing is more vital than that the legal profession keeps pace.

“If we legitimise actions which we know to be inconsistent with what the science demands (i.e. limiting warming to 1.5˚C), we risk undermining all that the profession stands for.”

Tim Crosland, a former government lawyer and director of Plan B.Earth, said: “The rule of law is being corrupted.

“There’s no accountability for those exposing the public to extreme risks by knowingly breaching the 1.5˚C climate change limit — humanity’s lifeline — while those taking peaceful and proportionate action to prevent the ultimate crime against humanity are persecuted and threatened with 10 years’ imprisonment. It’s time to take a stand.”

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