At Guarini Center event, speakers discuss efforts to address the disparate impacts of climate change

In legal battles against climate change, civil rights and human rights lawyers have opened up a new front, advocating for the people and communities most affected by a warming environment. On September 18, at an event titled, “Climate Justice: A Transatlantic Dialogue,” the Frank J. Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy, and Land Use Law hosted two panel discussions that explored efforts in the United States and internationally to address the disparate impacts of climate change.

“This is a common challenge that we are all facing, and we need to always keep in mind the most vulnerable, the ones that are hurt first and worst, the ones that are most under duress and being challenged,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in introductory remarks.

Among several matters discussed by the speakers, Kevin Chand, legal advisor to the Permanent Mission of Vanuatu to the United Nations, recounted Vanatu’s successful campaign to persuade the UN General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal obligations of countries to address climate change. Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, discussed her organization’s recent victory in a Montana state court, where Judge Kathy Seeley agreed with 16 young plaintiffs that they have a constitutional right to a clean environment.

Selected remarks from the discussion:

Professor of Clinical Law César Rodríguez-Garavito, chair of NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice: “Human rights [litigation] until very recently was mostly about the past...backward-looking liability and responsibility. With climate change, it’s both backward-looking but most of all forward-looking responsibility: what does it mean to protect future generations and young people?”

Kevin Chand, legal advisor of the Permanent Mission of Vanuatu to the UN: “The Law of the Sea hearings [before the ICJ tribunal] are currently underway…. It’s focused on the Law of the Sea state obligations to preserve and protect the marine environment. So one of the interesting things that may come out of this is this might trigger obligations of state parties…to regulate carbon dioxide.”

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust: “Sariel [one of 16 plaintiffs in the Montana suit] is Indigenous to Montana…. She told the story of how her tribe’s creation stories cannot be told if there’s not snow on the ground. And now the snow does not fall at the elevation where they have traditionally told those stories. [Plaintiff] Rikki Held is a rancher, and she has to work in heat and smoke with the threat of fire forcing evacuation on her ranch, where they’ve had cattle. These are the type of stories that were told at this trial…. And so these stories form the basis of Judge Seeley’s findings of fact and conclusions of law in ruling in the youths’ favor.”

Marianne Engelman Lado, acting principal deputy assistant administrator, Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, US Environmental Protection Agency: “We’ve created an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. So why does structure matter? It matters because we’re in the room when the national program offices, like the Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Water, are getting together with the [EPA] administrator [Michael Regan]. The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights is in the room setting policy, setting direction, participating in all that.”

 Posted September 26, 2023