Climate Justice and University Law Clinics: Filling the Gap?

By Rebecca Williams - Posted on 19 May 2022

This blog post is adapted from a presentation made at the Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2022 Conference

As its impacts are increasingly becoming a reality, climate change is already undermining the rights and wellbeing of individuals and local communities. This climate vulnerability is heightened for specific groups depending on certain characteristics and demographics. In particular, environmental injustice cannot be ignored when considering economic inequality, race and gender inequality, and the colonial and post-colonial domination of the global South.

University law clinics can offer a win-win solution for law students looking for practical legal work experience, whilst also offering communities and individuals free legal support and empowerment. They help vulnerable groups navigate legal issues, perhaps with housing, employment or discrimination issues.  At the same time, law students and law clinics are also in a unique position to help fill the ‘climate justice’ gap that exists in relation to the climate crisis, supporting communities and providing much needed balance against larger law firms that can be more complicit in greenhouse gas emissions production through the legal services they provide for polluting industries. There are very few environmental justice student law clinics, and none in Scotland at present. However, if included in the future work of existing clinics, law students may be able to have considerable impact in ensuring environmental and human rights are adequately protected.

What is Climate Justice?

Climate justice is often hard to define, but its scope contains distributive, procedural, corrective, and social elements to ensure that the climate crisis does not cause further global and local inequalities, and the rights of those affecting by climate degradation are adequately protected and recognised.

A key element of climate justice is distributive justice that ensures a fair allocation of the upsides and downsides of greenhouse gas production among and within different countries – for example, between wealthier and poorer countries, and wealthier and poor communities. Protection of procedural rights also helps to ensure peoples’ rights are protected in light of the climate crisis and activities that have or may contribute towards the worsening of climate change. This includes open, informed and inclusive decision-making processes for environmental matters. In more practical terms, this includes things such as consultation, access to information, review by courts and tribunals, access to legal standing, and sufficient participation. These rights are often protected in law, including on the international level through treaties such as the Aarhus Convention.

An additional conceptualisation of environmental justice relates to corrective justice, or in other words, imposing obligations for previous historical instances of injustice and to prevent future instances of harm occurring from the same injustice. In reality, this links the importance of litigation for environmental issues, and the redress this can offer to affected groups. In recent years, increased numbers of cases relating to climate change are being heard in front of international, regional and national courts against both governments and the private sector on a multitude of issues. Lastly, social justice underpins much of the popular rhetoric surrounding the concept of climate justice. Social justice recognises that social and economic justice are unavoidably intertwined with environmental issues, including the climate crisis. As a result, climate injustice cannot be discussed without also addressing broader social and societal issues that worsen existing inequalities caused by climate change. 

How Can Law Students Help?

Arguably, all governments, institutions and individuals can play a role in securing climate justice. However, law students are in a unique position to help address the climate crisis through their work in university law clinics. Since law students already have working knowledge of legal areas, such as property, tort (delict) or corporate law, that will increasingly be integrating considerations of climate change into their provisions as the climate crisis encroaches on more aspects of our daily life. At the same time, law students have increasing interest in climate issues, due to the strong stakes held in their futures and how they will be affected by a lack of climate action. Many young people are driving activism and during COP26 in Glasgow last year, many of protests held were youth led. More and more, young people are aware of the injustices of climate change, and they are beginning to demand and push for change from the adults and decision makers.

As a result of this heightened interest in environmental issues, law schools are increasingly offering environmental law courses to satisfy their demand for this knowledge and change, including the Global Environmental Law and Governance LLM at the University of Strathclyde. In the future, environmental law is likely to form a staple in the law school curriculum to a greater extent than ever before, placing young lawyers in a position where they may have unique knowledge of environmental law and the environmental/climate justice issues therein, that older legal professionals may not have. As a result, law students have (and will increasingly have) the knowledge, skills and resolve to help tackle environmental issues, like climate justice, through avenues such as university law clinics.

How Can University Law Clinics Support Climate Justice in their Work?

But what work can university law clinics actually do to help support climate justice, both locally and globally? In a similar vein to their current work, law clinics can serve disadvantaged populations that are most affected by climate change – helping to correct both the social and distributive elements of climate injustice that exist currently. This could involve assisting with direct legal action, but also broader types of work that help to support local organisations, non-governmental organisations in advocacy or activism. Beyond direct legal action, legal insights, briefs, reports and consultations can all form part of the work that law clinics could undertake on climate justice. Through their knowledge of environmental law, law students can also help to empower individuals in relation to their rights impeded upon by climate change – whether that be using strategies similar to Streetlaw or working with activists to help develop law-based strategies to make impact.

Overall, there is scope for law clinics to engage creatively and cause lawyering to be at the heart of rapidly developing climate change litigation to tackle climate change and the injustice it causes.

Potential Challenges and Future Steps

This being said, there are steps to be taken and challenges to consider when expanding law clinic work to include climate justice issues. While environmental law provision in law schools is increasing, there is still a need to ensure adequate education and materials on climate change law are provided on the curriculum. Moreover, law clinics will need to collaborate and share experiences of their work on these issues, perhaps even collaborating with environmental law or climate litigation centres. Centres such as Strathclyde’s own Centre for Environmental Law and Governance or its Climate Change Litigation Initiative (C2LI) are able to offer training and support to law students and clinics, helping them to achieve their goals in securing climate justice for vulnerable groups and communities.

Collaboration and network building will be key to a law clinic’s success and impact in climate justice work. Forging interdisciplinary university teams beyond traditional disciplines, such as with natural science students, can help to tackle issues of scientific complexity encountered in climate legal work and foster a mutually beneficial learning experience. Moreover, if a law clinic is to try and tackle global elements of climate justice, efforts into cross border collaboration and informed advocacy and awareness raising will need to be made. A first step would be for law clinics to sign a climate pledge, though, efforts made after signing this pledge are where real impacts are made, through utilising the knowledge, drive and network of university law clinics (and researchers beyond) to help secure climate justice for those most affected by climate change. Students might also collaborate with like-minded students and academics to generate ideas and plan future initiatives, much like the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic did at a recent online event organised by the universities of King’s College London and York in association with the Clinical Legal Education Organisation.

Law students and clinics can help secure climate justice both locally and globally. The existing skills and drive of students to secure legal justice can be directed and supplemented to help tackle the climate crisis, offering vital legal services and empowerment to those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.