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The Law School and Climate Crisis

Project Leads: Celine Tan, Sahar Shah and Harpreet Paul


This project was informed by the virtual climate change conference we held around this time last year, Disruption, Decarbonisation, Reparations. At this event, we tried to experiment with both the substance and form of what might be traditionally found at an academic conference. The conference brought academics into conversation with activists and civil society representatives from around the world. We tried to experiment with format at this conference by making space for not only panel discussions, but also story sharing, and an interactive food journey. This conference led us to Tamra Gilbertson’s fantastic work with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and with a smaller group we attended one of the training sessions Gilbertson offers on carbon colonialism and false solutions to the climate crisis.

Building on both these experiences, we came to this project – the ultimate aim of which is to create a short experimental alternative curricula that is pedagogically and substantively fit for purpose – we here broadly position the ‘purpose’ as equipping students to live in and interact with the world in a manner that preserves and protects it, and (particularly prescient for students associated with institutions in the global north) to understand their differential roles/situatedness in structures that facilitate or detract from this goal. The term ‘fit’ we left (and leave) completely open.

We aimed to think specifically about:

  • The relationship between the climate crisis and legal knowledge
  • The relationship between the climate crisis and the conveyance of legal knowledge in law schools
  • The relationship between pedagogy and the conveyance of legal knowledge in relation to the above

The curricula we aim to create would sit in tandem to and in conversation with a traditional legal LLB programme but would be open source and available to all.

Conceptual framework

This project critically interrogates the role of law schools and legal curricula shape societal responses to the climate crisis at local, national and global levels. In particular, the aim of this project is to consider:

  1. how conformity to traditionally fixed categories of teaching and learning can militate against transformative change in social, economic, and ecological structures to combat the climate crisis, and;
  2. what reforms are needed within the legal curricula, pedagogical, and operational practices of law schools to redress these gaps in our understanding of the climate crisis and respond more holistically to the climate crisis.

Underpinning our conceptual framework is a commitment to the notion of climate justice that frames the climate crisis as an ethical, social, and political issue inasmuch as an environmental, scientific or legal crisis. Addressing the climate crisis means addressing the systemic social and economic inequalities produced by historical and contemporary asymmetries in the global economy and international and national law as well as tackling the role of law schools and the legal curricula in producing the knowledge and legal techniques that underpin these systemic disparities.

Reframing the legal curricula can include considering the intersections between climate justice and racial justice (eg, Ranganathan & Bratman, 2019; Gonzalez, 2020), gender justice (eg Terry, 2009), disability justice (eg Jampel, 2018), and economic justice (eg Natarajan, Brickell & Parsons, 2019). While understandings of the connections amongst these concepts are increasingly present in academic literature on environmental and climate justice (as indicated by the references above) as well as environmental and climate activist narratives (see, e.g., the intersectional approach of People & Planet, the UK’s largest student climate campaigning organisation), these understandings are notably absent from the ways in which climate change is taught in most law schools. Climate and environmental law are often siloed in independent modules, precluding an awareness of how the environmental and climate crises factors into most legal subjects (e.g. international economic law (Harlan, Pellow & Roberts, 2015), company law (Ganguly, Setzer & Heyvaert, 2018; Sjåfjell, 2011), tort law (Burkett, 2011; Kysar, 2011), migration law (Ferris, 2018), and legal theory (Seck, 2019)). Beyond this, there is a broader Eurocentricity of legal knowledge where law modules, including environmental and climate law, disregard non-western canon and epistemologies (see Jivraj, 2020).

We believe that this process of responding to the climate crisis within legal academia must also be responsive to broader considerations of racial, gender, and global justice and will therefore be informed by concurrent movements within the legal academy to decolonise the legal curriculum, adopt anti-racist and feminist pedagogies, and create activist-scholar linkages inasmuch as we create policy and advocacy connections with elite policymakers and legal practitioners. At the same time, there is a critical need to engage audiences beyond law students and legal practitioners and work towards a public pedagogy of knowledge about the role of law in combatting the climate crisis and achieving climate justice.

Pilot workshop

The project began with a ‘pilot’ workshop to enable us to work through the two underlying issues:

  1. identifying the gaps in traditional legal scholarship and pedagogies in relation to understanding and contextualising the climate crisis; and
  2. ways to rethink the way legal academia and law schools engage with different forms of knowledge and knowledge systems to redress these gaps.

Our guiding questions when designing this workshop were:

  • How can we design a curriculum that disrupts the compartments into which legal knowledge are traditionally organised in western law schools, to enable the centering of subaltern (and community-focused) perspectives of climate justice?
  • How can we develop a democratic approach to knowledge that enhances understanding of global policy questions relating to climate justice (e.g. regarding the optimal approaches to mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage) whilst challenging the perspectives and frameworks that dominate the teaching of these concepts in western law schools?
  • In such a setting, how can we reimagine the assessment of knowledge on topics such as climate justice within an online curriculum situated in the western legal institutional environment?

We aim to build on conversations at the workshop to develop a proposed alternative curriculum for teaching and learning about the climate crisis in law schools based on our overarching approach outlined above. The aim is to develop a shared online resource bank that will be accessible to legal scholars, practitioners, advocates, activists, students, and the general public.

We commissioned two illustrators/ artists Tomekah George and Marcela Terán to produce graphics for us for before and after the workshop as ways to stimulating and capturing discussions.

Outputs from the workshop

The report of the workshop can be found here. The image below by Marcela Terán, is a visual representation of the workshop discussions. It can be downloaded here.

A visual representation of the workshop discussion. A summary can be read in the accompanying report.

This workshop and project are supported by:

Society of Legal Scholars Logo IEL Collective Logo Warwick Law School Logo

Illustration by Tomekah George No 1: Person rifling through filing cabinet drawer full of papers.

Illustration by Tomekah George No 2: Two people sitting under a tree, one reading a book, the other using a laptop.

These set of two images above by Tomekah George were produced to stimulate discussion at the workshop.

The final workshop report can be downloaded here.

The graphic recording of the workshop discussions by Marcela Teran can be downloaded here.