Climate Change Buoys Environmental Law LL.M.s

Lawyers need resilience and problem solving skills to cope with the challenges that climate change presents

Urgent solutions are needed to tackle the climate crisis, and lawyers will play a crucial role in insuring that society is able to set and stick with targets and programs to avoid a climate catastrophe.

That, in turn, has given a new lease of life to specialist law school programs focused on the environment, which are now among the most popular courses around, thanks to the abundance of career opportunities to make a positive impact on society. 

LL.M.s in Environmental Law are on offer at many law schools including Queen Mary University of London, SOAS, Berkeley Law and UCLA School of Law, among many others.

From Australia’s deadly bushfires to melting Swiss glaciers and Vietnamese wetlands subsiding into the sea, the impact of climate change is palpable. Many LL.M. students are deeply concerned about this, and are committed to identifying and implementing solutions. 

“It’s hard to think of something more important to the global public interest than lawyering ‘for good’ in response to the climate crisis,” says Steven Vaughan, co-director of the Centre for Law and Environment at UCL in London. He adds there’s a growing sense “this is something we all need to face up to”. 

It is a similar story at Birmingham Law School, according to professor Robert Lee, who has advised various governments including the European Parliament on environmental legislation. Birmingham’s Online LL.M. course on Energy and the Environment, which focuses on decarbonizing the economy, is “immensely popular,” Prof Lee says.  

“In part, this may be because students can see future job opportunities in a green economy, but they are not choosing this area by accident — they are genuinely engaged by the climate crisis,” he says. 

Climate change set to affect vast swathes of legal work

In the past, environmental law was seen as a niche field, but it is “becoming a mainstream part of corporate legal practice”, Prof Lee says. 

“Climate change will affect vast swathes of legal work, including property law, corporate governance, project finance and green investment,” he adds. “It will generate work in dispute resolution, as the losses created by climate change become more apparent, and it will have dramatic impact in areas such as insurance law.” 

In-house lawyers will need to help their organizations navigate the legal risks posed by climate change. A recent survey of 3,500 of them in Europe found that nearly half expected their firms to face such risks, but only 15 percent said they were well prepared to deal with the threats. 

[See the Top 10 LL.M. Environmental Law programs]

At least 1,300 climate cases have been filed worldwide sine 1986, according to Columbia University in New York and others, including climate liability lawsuits targeting fossil fuel companies, some of the worst carbon emitters. 

With mounting public pressure on governments around the world to cut carbon emissions more quickly, there is also a need for graduates who understand the interplay between market forces and state regulation, says Prof Lee. 

Big picture questions

But it is not so much the knowledge of climate change that is important; rather graduates need resilience and problem solving skills to cope with the challenges that climate change presents. 

“On the LL.M., we focus very much on big picture questions, such as the risks attached to changing climatic patterns and how might these be mitigated,” says Prof Lee. “We can then review the transactional, regulatory and procedural issues that will need to be addressed.” 

UCL’s LL.M. in Environmental Law and Policy aims to equip students to think critically about the challenges they face. Vaughan says: “We push them; we challenge them; we get them to confront the premises of their beliefs and actions. How many of us say we care about the climate crisis but eat meat every day or fly around the world on holiday or for work?” 

He says environmental lawyers tend to specialize in litigation, advisory work or corporate governance, including working in-house or for governments, NGOs and in private practice. 

“These employers seem to want keen minds open to the possibility of law to effect legal, economic and social change,” adds Vaughan. 

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, senior lecturer in climate law at Edinburgh Law School, adds that philanthropists leading climate action are also looking for environmental lawyers. 

“Law is one of the most powerful tools available to unlock barriers to rapid systems change,” she says. “Legal strategies, litigation and law reform initiatives can powerfully drive transformational change within a rapidly shrinking timeframe.” 

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