A new group of 120 lawyers is taking a stand for climate action, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect.
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in April 2022. “But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
One year on from this statement — which accompanied the launch of the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the warning that the world is on a “fast track” to climate disaster — more than 120 leading lawyers have announced that, going forward, they will refuse to prosecute peaceful climate activists or act on behalf of new fossil fuel projects.
The group of lawyers, most of whom are based in England, are acting under the title “Lawyers Are Responsible” and have published a Declaration of Conscience stating their intentions. But not everyone’s happy about it. Here’s more about the lawyer’s quest for climate justice, the centuries-old rule that may stand in their way, and why, ultimately, the law is one of the most important tools we have to tackle the climate crisis.
Why some lawyers won’t prosecute peaceful climate activists
In the same April 2022 statement, Guterres called investment in fossil fuels “moral and economic madness.” And yet, just seven months later, the U.K. government announced it was set to build its first new coal mine in 30 years. The plans were approved by Michael Gove, who currently serves as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, but who used to be the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. (He was promoted to this role after voting for fracking and attempting to remove climate change education from the school curriculum.)
To put it simply, the lawyers have had enough of the U.K. government’s failure to take the climate crisis seriously. In 2022, the world faced several serious climate events, including intense heatwaves, devastating and deadly floods, and costly droughts. If nothing is done, this will keep getting worse, say climate scientists.
“Earth breakdown is much worse than most people realize,” climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote for the Guardian, shortly after Guterres’ own statement. He added: “If everyone could see what I see coming, society would switch into climate emergency mode and end fossil fuels in just a few years.”
The letter was written shortly after Kalmus himself had been arrested for locking himself to JP Morgan Chase’s Los Angeles building with a group called Scientist Rebellion.
Going forward, Lawyers Are Responsible has pledged that people from similar groups, including Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, will not be prosecuted by the undersigned lawyers. “We are looking at a global catastrophe,” Matt Hutchings KC, who helped to draft the Declaration of Conscience, said in a statement. “The U.K. needs to divest from fossil fuels and invest in alternatives far more rapidly than we are. It is imperative that everyone, including lawyers, does what they can to make this happen.”
But doing so may come at a significant personal cost for many. This is because English lawyers are subject to the cab-rank rule, which, in a nutshell, means they are obliged to represent anyone in any field that they are competent to practice in.
“The cab rank rule prevents barristers from refusing work because they disagree with the actions or views of those seeking their services,” said Nick Vineall KC, the chair of the Bar Council, in a statement regarding the new declaration. He added: “It is disappointing that some lawyers apparently wish to remove these rights from people of whom they disapprove.”
For young legal professionals still carving out their careers, the rule leaves them in an incredibly difficult position.
“We’re being told by our firms and regulators it’s a professional obligation to act for fossil fuel projects, knowing that doing so will poison our own future and all of life on earth,” said one anonymous junior lawyer in a press release for the declaration. “That’s wrong on every level. It’s indefensible. If the profession doesn’t look out for my generation, how does it expect to survive?”
The role of law in the climate crisis
Despite the risks, the lawyers remain committed to doing the right thing for the planet. The law, they say, needs to change for the better. In the U.K., a climate emergency was declared in 2019, but since then, as well as approving a new coalmine, the government has also revealed its intentions to launch new North Sea licensing for oil and gas.
This would seriously undermine the country’s commitment to Net Zero. In April 2023, the Labour shadow secretary for climate and net zero Ed Miliband said that a new oilfield in the North Sea “would drive a coach and horses through our climate commitments.”
This is why the declaration not only vows against activist prosecution and refuses to support fossil fuel projects, but it also calls for reform.
“We support law reform and litigation aimed at mitigating and adapting to the effects of global warming,” the group noted, before also expressing support for the “polluter pays principle.” According to the London School of Economics and Political Science, this is the “commonly accepted practice that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it.”
One analysis by CarbonBrief reveals that alongside the US, China, Russia, Germany, and Brazil, the U.K. holds a significant amount of historical responsibility for climate change.
It is the government that needs to act on this, not everyday citizens, says Tim Crosland, the director of Plan B. Earth, a climate justice charity backing the declaration. And lawyers can, and must, use their influence to force change through the legal system.
“Behind every new oil and gas deal sits a lawyer getting rich,” said Crosland in a statement. “Many of them in the City of London law firms with strong and historic ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
“For the time being, these firms remain as reputable as Harvey Weinstein before #MeToo. Meanwhile, it’s the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty,” he continued. “The rule of law has been turned on its head. Lawyers are responsible. It’s time to take a stand.”
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