A safe, liveable climate is under threat. The rule of law is under attack in many places.
In this conversation, we explore dimensions of the rule of law and climate change. What happens to the rule of law in a changing climate? Can we mobilise concern for the climate to protect the rule of law? Can we use the law to protect the climate? How can the law help secure a safe climate and a fair, resilient transition?
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Rule of law and climate change event summary
Philippe Sands, QC and Tom Burke, co-founder and chair of E3G, joined Karla Hill, E3G Associate Director, for a lively discussion on climate change and the rule of law. They explored dimensions of law and climate change, and why they urgently need each other.
Philippe explained the connection: “The rule of law implies the idea that human activity that has impacts for our climate system is subject to certain limitations in our rules of positive law.” He outlined that the key debate is now about what the rule of law means in practice in relation to climate change, not whether there is a rule of law.
Outlining the threats posed to the law in the face of climate change, Tom highlighted the number of forces systematically attacking law, noting “if climate policy fails, there will be social, political and economic chaos, and in that chaos the rule of law cannot survive”.
Tom addressed the importance of the rule of law in supporting our response to climate change. He observed that if we are going to pull societies together in climate action, we must have confidence that everyone is going to play their part. The law provides that confidence that everyone will play their part. However, both Tom and Philippe noted that the UK government in recent years has increasingly undermined its historic commitment to the international rule of law.
The conversation moved on to the value of extending the rule of law to climate change. Philippe explained how the newly published definition for the proposed international crime of ecocide could help to tackle climate change. Tom and Philippe noted the challenges that must be addressed, and the need for innovative new concepts, including thinking about the irreversibility of climate change, international equity questions and individual and collective responsibility.
Tom observed the important interaction between lawyers and citizens who want to extend and protect the law and environmentalists who are focused on protecting the environment and climate. He added that there is not enough conversation between these two communities. Going forward, this needs to change if we are to unlock the mutual benefits that could arise from greater interaction.
Philippe Sands is Professor of the Public Understanding of Law and Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at UCL. He was appointed Samuel and Judith Pisar Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in 2019 and 2021. He is co-chairing the expert drafting panel convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation on the legal definition of “ecocide” as a potential international crime.
Tom Burke is a co-founder of E3G and chairs its Board. He is Chairman of the China Dialogue Trust, a Trustee of Climate Advisors UK and a Visiting Professor at Imperial and University Colleges, London
Karla Hill is Associate Director – Political Economy and Governance at E3G, focused on identifying and enabling the institutions, actions, laws and alliances critical to driving effective, rapid and just global climate action.