When it comes to environmental protection, it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle filled with “band-aid solutions”. Polluted air? Wear a mask. Beach too dirty to swim in? Try the local pool. Rising sea levels encroaching your house? Build a wall.
But for a growing community of people around the world, there is no plan(et) B, and that means using the law to protect their right to live in a healthy environment. This means holding governments and companies accountable and urging them to take responsibility for the growing climate crisis.
But is it possible for one person to stand up to these giants alone?
Sophie Marjanac is an environmental lawyer and during her career has helped represent groups such as Indigenous Australian landowners. She currently works for Client Earth, an organisation that uses the power of law to protect people and the planet.
Out of all the topics to specialise in, why did you choose to focus on the environment as a lawyer?
My first job after university was in land rights representing Australian indigenous landowners, and in this role I became interested in how the environment was crucial to the realisation of human rights. I had also always wanted to use my legal skills for the protection of the natural world.
When you tell people you’re an environmental lawyer, the first name most people probably think of is Erin Brockovich. How much of her story and standing up to major corporates is reflected in real life?
I think that Erin Brockovich is symbolic of the “David and Goliath” type battle that many small communities face in environmental litigation, so in that sense it is very accurate. Unfortunately litigation is expensive and those with deep pockets can afford teams of lawyers, experts and consultants to make their case, whereas community groups and individuals are often doing it themselves on shoestring budgets.
Were you exposed to much environmental activism growing up? Is that why you decided to pursue environmental law?
I grew up in the beautiful Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, where we were always in the bush as kids. I think this influenced my values and appreciation of the natural world. But I was really first exposed to environmental activism at university, where I eventually decided that the best use of my skills was to finish my law degree and use it in a positive way.
As an environmental lawyer, why do you advocate for human rights?
The environment and human rights are intrinsically linked — other rights depend on a healthy environment. Although it may seem like there is a trade-off between achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and tackling climate change, in reality if we ignore sustainability in development then it will undermine those gains. As they say, there are no jobs on a dead planet. Applying this to climate change, it’s now clear that there is no profit to be made on a planet that is three or four degrees warmer.
In recent years, there’s been a wave of cases around the world of people standing up to fossil fuel companies, governments, or financial institutions and demanding their right to a healthy and safe environment. There’s the KlimaSeniorinnen, the 1000 plus senior women who are suing the Swiss government; and youth organisations like Our Children’s Trust from USA who are filing lawsuits against US states and federal government over climate change. What do you think has spurred this trend and do you think it has the power to change anything?
I think that frustration with the political process has really spurred this new wave of climate lawsuits, some of which have been inspired by the success in the Netherlands by the Urgenda Foundation in 2015 — one of the first citizen driven cases that forced the Dutch government to immediately take more effective action on climate change. However, the history of climate change litigation is growing and the courts have always played an important role in forcing recalcitrant governments to act, and to defend human rights. As a lawyer I believe in the power of the law to change things, and I think that eventually we will see success in these cases. The main question is whether it will be too late by the time the courts catch up.
Some of these cases have been thrown out though, such as New York City’s case against some massive oil companies which has now been appealed. This is obviously disheartening for those resisting the fossil fuel companies. What is the way forward?
I think, quite simply, it is to keep going. There are more than 15 other lawsuits being brought in the US, all with slightly different arguments — it’s definitely too early to say that one of these will not succeed. The carbon majors — producers of oil, natural gas, coal and cement — are also facing pressure from many fronts, and I think they are realising that they can’t carry on with business as usual.
You are a resource person for the petitioners in a landmark investigationcurrently happening in the Philippines. Forty-seven fossil fuel and cement companies are being investigated by the Commission of Human Rights into their contribution to human rights harms resulting from climate change. The set of hearings won’t finish until end of year, but win or lose, what precedent and impact do you think could this legal action set?
The findings of the Commission will be a world first — the first time that a national human rights institution will have made findings about the impacts of climate change on human rights. The Commission’s findings will be read by human rights practitioners and scholars all over the world and will help to define the law in this emerging area.
What would you say to someone who thinks they have a good environmental law case and wants to sue? After all, often the people who are deeply affected include Indigenous Peoples, the poor, and the young and old and they might feel intimidated by the power of their opponents, lack of finances, or even scared for their lives.
Unfortunately, people who stand up to powerful interests are often taking big personal risks. However there are some excellent organisations out there that support environmental and human rights defenders and my advice would be to get in touch with those networks — you don’t need to go it alone.
For the communities and individuals that are currently pursuing these cases against fossil fuel companies, what is it that they are asking for? You can’t turn back time on the impacts of extreme weather and climate change, so are they asking for money to cover the costs of dealing with the impacts?
In the US, several of the local governments and states are asking for money to cover the costs of adaptation, that is, of raising roads and drainage infrastructure, building sea walls, and other measures to make low-lying areas resilient to future extreme weather and sea level rise.
As a leading environmental and climate lawyer, what makes you hopeful?
The passion of the people that I work with gives me hope, as does the attitudes of young people, a huge majority of whom accept the science of climate change and want rapid action. Future generations know that we need to live in balance with the natural world. It’s our job to make sure those in power listen to them as the voice of the future.
Shuk-Wah Chung is a Writer and Content Editor for the Communications Hub at Greenpeace East Asia. Follow her on Twitter here.
Follow Sophie Marjanac on Twitter here.
It’s time for all of us to assert our rights, demand climate justice, and a dignified way of life.