Climate team lead lawyer

Meet Retta Berryman

Retta Berryman is a senior specialist lawyer and leads EJA’s climate justice team.

Retta works on public interest litigation and legal interventions for a safe climate and justice for frontline communities, including the landmark living wonders climate cases.

How did you come to work at EJA?

My background is in public law and human rights. I began my career in a small, specialist community legal centre focusing on housing and consumer rights. I then spent a number of years as a legal advisor and litigator for the Victorian government where I developed a varied public law practice and specialised expertise in human rights law.

In my years of government practice, I learned the importance of bringing intellectual rigour – as well as courage and conviction – to the task of lawyering. I gained valuable legal experience around the regulation of industry, the limits of public power, and making new laws more rights-compliant. I also saw firsthand why principles like accountability, transparency, and equality before the law really matter.

At the same time, like so many people, the worsening climate crisis was causing me to rethink how I was spending my work hours and my energy. It took me a little while to figure out that there was, in fact, the perfect job to combine my professional skills and experience, with the sense of purpose that comes from working alongside individuals and communities striving for justice.

But then, happily, me and EJA found one another and I have worked in the climate team since 2021.

I love working with the incredible team of lawyers, campaigners and communicators at EJA. Everyone is smart, passionate, ambitious and always looking for new ways to have impact. But the main reason I enjoy my job is that EJA is a really nice and inclusive place to come to work.

EJA lawyers and Co-CEO with ECoCeQ client, Christine. From left to right: Hannah White, Elizabeth McKinnon, Christine Carlisle, Retta Berryman, Sam Moorhead, Shannon McGrellis

I am motivated by the creativity and collaboration that come with being public interest lawyer. For our work to be impactful, we need to not just identify problems but create solutions within the confines of the law, often calling on the knowledge or interdisciplinary expertise of others.

It is a privilege to work alongside people and communities who are organising and advocating for climate action, and exercising their democratic rights to hold companies and government to account in court. I am lucky enough to do this for a job. But there are countless people among the groundswell of climate activists, many who are doing so as volunteers, whose skills, strategic nous, and perseverance are just incredible to witness up close.

It is also amazing to be part of a global community of practice and I am inspired and motivated by the work of courageous climate and environmental lawyers across our region and beyond.

In the face of government inaction and corporate misdirection, the rapid increase of novel climate litigation in Australia and across the world reflects the urgent need to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and give future generations the best chance of a safe climate. The bringing together of the best available science and the law sometimes presents challenges, but it is exciting to see the rapid developments unfolding in this space.

Some key challenges arising in our work currently include the false solutions and greenwashing put forward to justify further expansion of climate-damaging fossil fuels, which hinder the real-world reduction of emissions.

There is also, I think, still a way to go for us to collectively recognise that justice is integral part meaningful climate action in Australia. In particular, First Nations’ justice is inseparable from the fight to safeguard our climate.

Similarly, justice for the communities in Australia and across our region who are already disproportionately impacted by climate change needs to be a central part of the solutions we are working towards.

One of the joys of our team’s work is the broad range of inspiring individuals, community groups and organisations we get to partner with and represent. Our clients include brave young people in Australia from youth, First Nations and disability communities, grassroots community groups, and large NGOs.

Some of our work for clients is developing legal complaints and cases and representing them in court. But other work we do is quiet, careful research and providing technical advice to assist clients achieve their law reform or advocacy goals. It’s fair to say that it’s rare to have two workdays the same!

Where appropriate, we also share accessible information about legal developments and litigation we are running for our clients, which is an important part of our role as a national public interest legal organisation.

EJA lawyer, Retta Berryman and ECoCeQ client, Christine Carlisle

The Living Wonders work with our legendary client, the Environment Council of Central Queensland, has been the EJA climate team’s biggest undertaking yet. It has been an absolute honour to represent this small but mighty volunteer group who have courageously taken this action on behalf of living wonders across the continent and, really, on behalf of us all.

We knew from the beginning it would be an important legal intervention, to legally test the failure of successive federal environment ministers to consider climate impacts when doing their risk assessment of new coal and gas proposals.

The basis of the intervention was a series of requests to the Minister, with an evidence cache comprising thousands of pages of scientific material that we carefully collated and analysed. The evidence demonstrated, in devastating detail, the climate harm on over 1,700 nationally protected plants, animals and iconic places, that will result from the approval of new coal and gas proposals.

What I didn’t expect was the level of public engagement and support the work has attracted since it was launched in 2022. Tens of thousands of people from all over the country have followed the developments, written submissions in support of ECoCeQ’s requests, attended webinars and engaged with the detailed evidence that our client generously decided to make public.

ECoCeQ’s intervention initially targeted 19 of the biggest new coal and gas proposals waiting for approval on the current Environment Minister’s desk. Since it was launched, five of those 19 proposals have been withdrawn by the proponents or otherwise shelved.

But once the Minister made her first decisions last year refusing to accept the evidence of climate impacts as relevant to her risk assessment, the next phase began.

ECoCeQ commenced litigation in what are the first court challenges to coal or gas decisions made by this Environment Minister. After a disappointing loss before a single judge last year, ECoCeQ’s appeals to the full bench of the Federal Court were heard last month.

We are now awaiting the Appeal Court’s decision, but our client remains hopeful that the outcome of these cases means that climate harms of new coal and gas can never again be ignored in environmental decision making.

ECoCeQ staff and EJA laywer, Retta Berryman