The argument for introducing climate change to law schools

The argument for introducing climate change to law schools

29 November 2021 By Naomi Neilson

In the midst of “an unfolding climate crisis”, academics with Bond University argued that law schools have an obligation to contribute to efforts to address and counter climate change. Not only would this improve the community’s response to the crisis, but it would also ensure that its students are prepared for an emerging area of law.

In the latest University of Queensland Law Journal, Professor and executive dean at Bond University’s faculty of law Nick James and Associate Professor Danielle Ireland-Piper have argued in favour of including climate change within the curriculum as part of universities’ ongoing obligation to contribute to the “public good”. In many respects, law schools should be at the forefront of responding to the climate crisis.

“Universities have the capacity to assist and support communities to respond to climate change by enhancing the community’s understanding and its consequences and by facilitating improvement in the community’s ability to adapt to change. Both are required to ensure an effective response to climate change,” they wrote.

“Law schools can also contribute to efforts to respond to climate change by including climate change law in the curriculum. By doing so, they will not only prepare law students for what is likely to be an increasingly important area of legal practice, they will empower law students to be themselves to contribute to the public good by using the law to respond to and to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

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Associate Professor Ireland-Piper and Professor James set out three key reasons why law schools should be leading the charge. For one, law graduates will need to draw upon a “thorough understanding of climate change law” if they want to practise in what is “likely to be an area of increasing importance” or if they want to support major reforms to legal and social structures “in order to better address climate change”.

Law students will also need to understand how climate change impacts upon the legal rules, processes and practices. Thirdly, the Bond University academics said law schools have a general obligation to serve the public good, which is achieved by facilitating the “creation of a new generation of legal practitioners” who are adequately educated about the effects of climate change and its legal consequences.

Currently, climate change has implications for most law subjects, not least because of the regulatory tools required by climate change to draw on areas of law such as administrative, tort, property, corporations, human rights and international, Associate Professor Ireland-Piper and Professor James wrote. They argued that it means the community not only needs climate scientists, but lawyers who understand the legal systems.

“Ultimately, the debate on climate change is premised on a basic question: ‘What do we do with the information in front of us?’. The same question can be asked in the specific context of legal education. What do legal educators do with the information in front of them? How do legal educators prepare students for legal careers at a time in human history where ‘understanding the legal, scientific and other trends in climate change is as essential for lawyers as it is for their clients?’.

“One answer, among many, is in the inclusion of climate change in the law curriculum; not simply as a one-off isolated incident but woven throughout various stages of a degree program,” Associate Professor Ireland-Piper and Professor James said.

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Many universities already offer climate change law as an additional part of their degrees, but Associate Professor Ireland-Piper and Professor James said this should be extended to all. A degree that focuses on climate change law will provide students with the qualifications and expertise they need to take effective action in future.

“A law degree that includes a focus upon climate change and the law will empower its graduates to go out and make a difference. It will give students committed to helping the community adapt and respond to climate change the tools they need to lead legal, social and political reform. And by providing such a program, law schools will once again be fulfilling their commitment to serve the public good,” they wrote.  

The argument for introducing climate change to law schools
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