Law Council must declare climate emergency, aid protesters, say lawyers

Bee-keepers led a protest at the Sydney Extinction Rebellion to highlight habitat loss. Photo: Peter Boyle

Lawyers for Climate Action Australia wants peak legal bodies to recognise the climate crisis and declare a “climate emergency in recognition of the need for urgent action”.

The newly-formed alliance of more than 200 lawyers is calling on the Law Council of Australia, state and territory peak bodies, and employers to step up support for climate justice, including by mobilising the legal profession “to develop and support independent legal observer projects to observe interactions between the police and the public.” 

Lawyers for Climate Action believe “climate change is a justice issue” because its effects are being disproportionately felt by “communities already experiencing disadvantage and who have contributed the least to its causes”.

The letter, which was released last month, comes as climate action groups, such as School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion, have stepped up their protests, several of which have seen dozens of arrests.

The letter noted that lawyers have responsibility “to be aware of and act on climate change” in daily legal practice.

It highlights that lawyers’ responsibilities include enhancing access to justice, particularly to those “who would not otherwise have access to legal assistance and to work for the public good”.

The alliance has also called for legal support to assist communities most affected by the climate crisis, including rural and remote communities, those affected by natural disasters and drought, communities transitioning from fossil fuel-based industries and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The letter noted the important leadership role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that have long fought to protect the land and their connection to it. 

Group co-founder Karen Dyhrberg said: “Our legal system should keep people safe and provide access to justice. The legal profession has a role to play to ensure climate change, and the threats it brings, are recognised and addressed in an equitable and just way.”

The letter calls on the Law Council to promote improvements in the law being able to advise government about the implications of climate change, particularly law reform that supports the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting temperature increases to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. 

Signatories included law students, lawyers, barristers and legal academics, as well as Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Environmental Justice Australia, Townsville Community Legal Service, Grata Fund, HUB Community Legal, Action Ready, Griffith Law School, Phi Finney McDonald, Muslim Legal Network Queensland and the Australian Earth Laws Alliance. 

In August, the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia released a declaration stating climate change is a health emergency that will have the most severe consequences on all vulnerable populations.

Almost 1000 engineers and 90 engineering firms and organisation have also signed onto the Australian Engineers Declare Climate and Biodiversity Crises statement, which says: “The impending climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the two most serious issues of our time. Australian Engineers Declare are determined to address this.”

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