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Thought Leadership Forum : The Role of the Courts in the Response to Climate Change

Posted on 14/11/2013

The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, hosted a Thought Leadership Forum on ‘The Role of the Courts in the Response to Climate Change’ on Friday 25 October.

The forum was attended by an eminent and interdisciplinary group of academics, legal practitioners, judges, philosophers, social scientists, NGO and government representatives, consultants and interested parties.

Thought Leadership roundtable

Thought Leadership Forum: The Role of the Courts in the Response to Climate Change

The evening was arranged to coincide with a meeting of the Expert Group on Climate Obligations, convened by Professor Thomas Pogge, Visiting Professor of Philosophy & Global Justice at The Dickson Poon School of Law and Director of the Global Justice Programme at Yale. The Expert Group is a recently launched initiative supported by leading academics, legal advocates and judges whose objective is to pursue climate-related goals through international legal instruments and strategic court cases. The Law School was proud to host the Expert Group’s third formal meeting on 26-27 October.

The Thought Leadership Forum was an evening roundtable discussion that sought to discuss and challenge the proper role of the courts in responding to climate change issues, and to consider various ways in which courts might be involved in disputes that have climate change aspects. The discussion focused on public interest litigation, within the broader socio-political context of responding to climate change issues.

Three key presentations were given at the event.

Mr James Thornton - The View from an Advocacy Group

Mr James Thornton (CEO of ClientEarth) gave an insightful appraisal of the experiences and possibilities of environmental public interest litigation, in the UK, US, EU and further afield.  His presentation  was followed by a response from Adam Matthews (GLOBE International), who addressed the fast evolving legislative picture relating to climate change obligations in national legal systems across the world.

Professor John Knox - An International Law Perspective 

Professor John Knox (UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment; Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, Wake Forest University) gave a succinct analysis of climate change-related litigation in international law. He considered the reasons why there had been no successful (or argued) cases in the International Court of Justice, as well as the role of human rights tribunals in dealing with climate disputes. Professor Michael Gerrard (Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice Director, Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School) responded with observations on domestic climate change litigation and its relationship to international litigation, reinforcing the roles that lawyers should play in responding to climate change.

James Maurici QC - A Practitioner Perspective

James Maurici QC (Landmark Chambers) offered insights on the prospects of public interest litigation from his viewpoint as a practitioner, with UK and EU environmental law as a focus. Mr Maurici explained how a fine-grained understanding of procedural and substantive legal issues is crucial for thinking about any kind of litigation, and considered how some might pursue litigation primarily to raise the profile of an issue. Professor Jaap Spier (Advocate-General, Supreme Court of The Netherlands; Honorary Professor, Maastricht University) responded with a spirited call for courts to do much more in climate related disputes than they are currently doing.

In the discussion that followed, a range of perspectives was brought to bear on legal action in responding to climate change. 

These included:

  • Whether judicial institutions should be bypassed altogether, and what might be the legal implications of responses to climate change themselves (Professory Catherine Redgwell, Chichele Professor of Public International Law, University of Oxford)
  • How judges needed to be much more aware of climate science as a matter of judicial notice (The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG)
  • How the distributional consequences of legal decisions should be kept in mind (Professor John Tasioulas, Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, UCL; Professor Chris Hilson, Head of School of Law, University of Reading)
  • How legal responses fit with other strategic or political approaches to climate change issues (Chris Dodwell, Ricardo-AEA; Dr Lisa Vanhala, Lecturer in Political Science, UCL). 
  • Finally, lawyers need perhaps to broaden their horizons in thinking about the nature of climate change issues. As Professor Simon Caney (Professor of Political Theory, University of Oxford) noted, climate change issues extend beyond reactive responses to consumption matters, and we more proactively consider questions of demographic change and access to technology.

The-Hon-Michael-Kirby-Eloise-Scotford-185x195The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG (pictured) described the event as an interesting and important one:

“There is work for lawyers and courts to do,” he said. "[The impact of climate change] is an extremely serious matter. It’s a serious matter for Australia, with its huge coastal borders. It is a matter that is existential to many island states and countries that are low lying such as Bangladesh and Tuvalu. Climate change is going to affect hundreds of millions of fellow human beings. Therefore it is a great privilege to be involved in discussion of such matters."    

The forum was chaired by Dr Eloise Scotford (Lecturer in Environmental Law) and generously funded by the Dickson Poon gift.

This event was part of a Thought Leadership Forum series at The Dickson Poon School of Law. See forthcoming events from The Dickson Poon School of Law.

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