The letter, an initiative from a new group of legal professionals, Lawyers for Climate Action Australia, is a welcome prompt for all lawyers to consider their role and the role of the legal system in responding to climate change.
The demand for Australia’s peak legal professional body, the Law Council of Australia, follows a recent move by the Australian Medical Association to recognise climate change as a health emergency.
We have signed on to the letter to the Law Council because we believe that the law and the legal profession have a central role to play in responding to the climate crisis. While at its worst, the law and the legal profession can block or slow action on climate, at its best our legal system and the legal professionals that are central to its functioning can play a crucial role in responding to the climate crisis in a manner that strengthens our democracy and advances the rule of law.
We think that the letter is a timely prompt for all lawyers, law firms and legal organisations, and legal professional bodies to consider their role in responding to the global threat of climate change.
One reservation we do has about the text of the letter, which prompted us to consider carefully whether we should lend our support to the initiative, is the demand to the Law Council to declare a “climate emergency”. While this can be read as simply indicating that the problem is both massive and urgent, demands for a declaration of a climate emergency can also be understood as demands for suspension of the rule of law and dispensing with democratic government. The invocation of emergency powers often falls most heavily on those already marginalised, runs counter to climate justice and can be politically problematic.
We do not think this is the intent of the letter, and indeed it would be a strange demand – lawyers can be some the strongest champions for the strengthening of democratic institutions and the advancement of justice. Instead, the letter is a welcome call for Law Council and all Australian legal professionals consider their personal, ethical and professional response to the climate crisis.