As climate scientists offer final warnings on our planet’s future, climate activists are becoming more and more determined to force change – whatever the cost. Their protests are increasingly controversial and disruptive, as those looking to secure the planet’s future clamber for the attention of lawmakers, big businesses, and the public. As protests heat up, so does the risk of legal consequences, but legal professionals are starting to come out in support of climate activists as 140 top lawyers sign a “Declaration of Consciousness”.
On March 29, 2023, a collective of lawyers known as “Lawyers are Responsible” published a “Declaration of Consciousness” stating:
“as a matter of conscience, they will withdraw their legal services from (1) new fossil fuel projects and (2) criminal or civil action against peaceful climate protesters.”
The signatories to the Declaration include 140 prominent lawyers from the United Kingdom and around the world, including many from countries in the Global South who will face the worst impacts of the climate crisis, such as South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Guyana and the Philippines.
Lawyers recognise complicity in climate destruction
The press release in which the group outlined their intentions highlighted the contribution of the legal sector towards climate destruction. They reference the $1.62 trillion worth of transactions within the fossil fuel industry that were made possible with the support of lawyers between 2017 and 2022.
They argue that not only should fellow legal professionals halt their support for the fossil fuel industry, they should also refuse to help prosecute peaceful climate change protesters – a practice that is becoming increasingly common.
Melinda Janki, Attorney-at-Law in Guyana and declaration signatory, said:
“I beg my legal colleagues to join me and other lawyers who are on the frontline fighting to uphold the rule of law and protect our countries and planet from the killing effects of fossil fuels. Please take a stand and do not be complicit in ecocide and the inevitable destruction of human lives.”
Peaceful climate protesters targeted by police and courts
As groups like Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain ramp up their efforts to garner support for better climate practice, they are often met by heavy handed police and disproportionate legal punishment. Four Just Stop Oil activists, arrested for blocking a London road, were convicted this year of causing a public nuisance. The group of men were sentenced to 260 hours of unpaid work in total, and made to pay a combined £7,500 in prosecution costs.
Earlier this year in Germany, protesters trying to save the village of Luetzerath from its imminent destruction in order to make way for a new coal field were reportedly beaten heavily by German police, with at least 20 ending up in hospital.
One week before the release of the declaration by Lawyers are Responsible, reports from Australia stated that two German students are set to be deported back to their native land for blocking access to Sydney’s seaport. Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, seemingly missing the point, denounced the actions of the two Germans as “attention-seeking”.
As activists across the world attempt to stop humanity’s march towards catastrophe, it is clear that the support of legal professionals, such as those in Lawyers are Responsible, is vital.
Activists and lawyers score victory against climate change villains Shell
Dutch fossil fuel giant Shell, who place 7th in global rankings for greenhouse gas emissions by companies between 1965 and 2018, produced 32,498 million tons of CO2 equivalent during this period. While they claim to be aiming for carbon neutrality through a transition to green energy by 2050, they are accused of greenwashing and playing fast and loose with the truth surrounding their climate practices. While they claim to be working towards achieving net-zero, they contradict themselves through continual new investment in oil and gas projects. The International Energy Agency stated in 2021 that no new oil and gas projects were compatible with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
These contradicting practices form the basis of the argument put forward to the English High Court by ClientEarth, a group of environmental lawyers. The group, who are token stakeholders in Shell, argue that the company does not have a suitable strategy to meet climate targets as the rest of the world moves away from fossil fuels. They say that failure to properly transition to clean energy leaves the company at risk of being left behind as fossil fuels are made obsolete – a reasonable argument for an investor to make. The lawsuit, which is aimed at the companies 11 directors, is a landmark case in holding corporate directors liable for failing to properly prepare their company for the net zero transition.
This is an exemplary case of activism and the legal profession working hand-in-hand to tackle climate destruction as opposed to supporting it, and provides hope for further progress in this direction in the future with the help of groups like Lawyers are Responsible.