‘You are all climate lawyers now,’ John Kerry tells ABA

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry gestures during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Moscow, Russia July 12, 2021. Dimitar Dilkoff/Pool via REUTERS

  • No practice area will be untouched by climate change, special envoy warns
  • Law firms face greater climate scrutiny over clients, carbon footprints

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(Reuters) – Lawyers across the profession have a vital role in fighting climate change and assisting those struggling with its effects, John Kerry said Thursday in an address to members of the American Bar Association during its annual meeting.

The former Secretary of State, the first-ever United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, warned that the planet is on the path to catastrophe, and meeting the “challenge of our times” will require greater coordination among nations and more aggressive emissions-reduction commitments from them.

But there is a window of opportunity to turn the tide if countries – and lawyers – act quickly, said Kerry, who addressed the ABA virtually. (The ABA is holding its first hybrid annual meeting, with some events happening online and others in-person in Chicago.)

“You are all climate lawyers now, whether you want to be or not,” said Kerry, who obtained his J.D. from Boston College in 1976. “Facts, evidence, and science all make clear that we have a narrow window to avoid the worst consequences of this crisis, and there is a place for lawyers to help hold back the tide and create new pathways.”

No practice area will be untouched by the climate crisis, Kerry warned. Lawyers and non-profit attorneys are needed to assist people in the aftermath of devastating climate-change-driven storms and fires, he noted. Bankruptcy lawyers will need to assess the infrastructure risks of their clients and advise them on safer, wiser planning. Transactional lawyers will be crucial in the many deals necessary to expedite the transition to greener energy and support the adoption of innovative technology, he said. Construction, procurement, and land use are all areas where lawyers will have to grapple with the impact of the climate crisis, Kerry added.

“Some of you will write the laws that will drive these transformative interventions,” Kerry said. “Others of you will administer and enforce them. And some of you may negotiate the international arrangements that help the world address the climate crisis in all its manifestations.”

Connections between climate change and the legal industry have been generating more attention recently, especially among the next generation of attorneys. Law Students for Climate Accountability, a national group that emerged out of Harvard Law School in 2020, has staged protests and actions against Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher over their representation of fossil fuel clients. The group has encouraged fellow students to boycott those firms during the summer associate recruiting process. On the flip side, many large firms have generated new business promoting practice groups that advise clients on environmental, social, and governance issues, known as ESG.

In order to reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the world needs to reduce emissions 45% by 2030, said Kerry, who was named climate envoy by then-President Elect Joe Biden in November. That makes quick action essential.

“We need your skills, your expertise, and hard work to lay the legal pathways and to expedite our progress along that path; to identify existing laws that help implement the needed changes; to amend the laws that are a hindrance; and to draft the new laws that will turn novel ideas into implementable innovations,” Kerry said.

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Karen Sloan