If businesses are not more proactive in tackling climate change, research has found this will cost the world US$9.87 trillion (A$13.57 trillion) by 2050. The Australian Pro Bono Centre (the Centre) recently published a guide to assist the legal profession in mitigating the climate crisis. 

The Centre said that engaging in climate change-related pro bono work is a great way for lawyers with a diverse range of skillsets and good experiences to get involved. 

“This is not just an opportunity for lawyers with knowledge of environmental and planning law – there are many ways that lawyers can use their existing skills and resources to work towards climate justice,” the guide said.

 This encompasses others in the legal profession who are not practising lawyers.

“There are opportunities to contribute by providing legal education, conducting training, and undertaking law reform and legal research.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, many countries have agreed to limit global average temperature increases to below two degrees.

But many individuals, not-for-profit organisations (NFPs), and social enterprises do not have the resources to battle climate change alone. So, pro bono assistance is the only way for them to access justice and legal advice.

Do firms have an ethical obligation to take action against climate change? 

The Ethics Index 2019, published by the Governance Institute of Australia, found that 91 per cent of Australians believe that Australian businesses have the responsibility to take action on climate change.

“There is also a growing expectation that protection of our planet should be integrated into the responsible business practices of organisations in the private sector around the world,” the guide said.

The guide noted a shift from profit maximisation to including social purpose in an organisation’s long-term sustainable growth.

How to get involved in pro bono work to help combat the climate crisis 

The guide suggested there are 15 ways for lawyers to engage in pro bono work:

1.    Running strategic climate litigation

2.    Working on law reform activities

3.     Offering commercial legal advice to not-for-profit organisations and social enterprise

4.     Establishing a climate justice clinic in collaboration with a university

5.     Providing a secondee to a civil society organisation working to combat climate change

6.     Providing legal assistance to Indigenous people who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis

7.     Conducting legal research about the intersection between human rights and climate change

8.     Providing legal advice, information and advocacy to those fighting climate change

9.     Providing legal information and advice to those affected by a natural disaster

10.  Offering immigration law advice to people displaced by the effects of climate change

11.  Giving legal support to NGOs and developing country delegations in international climate change negotiations

12.  Providing community legal education

13.  Providing legal assistance to communities particularly affected by the climate crisis

14.  Delivering training to community lawyers

15.  Expanding the role of the pro bono lawyer by embedding climate transition and environmental factors in commercial decision-making

How to get started

The guide also provided a roadmap on how to start undertaking work to combat climate change. For example, one of the ways that pro bono lawyers can engage in pro bono climate litigation is through co-counselling.  

“Reach out to a civil society organisation that works on climate-related matters and ask if you can assist with current or future strategic litigation,” the guide said.

The guide also recommends that lawyers attend training to become independent legal observers.

The guide notes that lawyers could offer assistance directly to activist organisations, which may be in the form of providing legal representation to those who have been charged with a criminal offence or drafting plain language legal information for activists ahead of protests about their legal rights and police responsibilities.

Pro bono lawyers also have an important role to play in addressing concerns raised by firms in relation to commercial conflicts, and the guide provided various suggestions on how to manage these conflicts.

Examples include identifying any alignments between the interests of the pro bono and commercial clients and forming coalitions with other law firms when undertaking climate-related pro bono projects.

To learn more about how to get started with climate-related pro bono work, please read this guide.

Dawn Lo