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March/April 2023

ABA encourages climate-conscious lawyering at COP27

John C Dernbach, Tracy D Hester, and Amy L Edwards


  • Addresses the need for climate-conscious law practice.
  • Explains how ABA’s interests were advanced at COP27.
  • Provides possible examples of how ABA can show what it is doing to foster climate conscious lawyering at home.
ABA encourages climate-conscious lawyering at COP27
Alistair Berg via Getty Images

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The American Bar Association (ABA) partnered with other bar associations to encourage climate-conscious lawyering at the recently concluded international climate conference in Egypt. The ABA participated in first-ever events with the International Bar Association (IBA), the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), and the Law Society of England and Wales (LSEW) on their roles and the role of lawyers generally in addressing climate change. This was the 27th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27).

Run-up to COP27

The ABA House of Delegates adopted resolutions urging action on climate change in 2008 and 2019. It also adopted resolutions in support of sustainable development, the overall framework for addressing climate change, in 1991, 2003, and 2013. The 2019 climate change resolution encourages all levels of government as well as the private sector “to recognize their obligation to address climate change and take action” to “[r]educe U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or below as soon as possible, consistent with the latest peer-reviewed science.” In addition, the resolution exhorts lawyers “to advise their clients of the risks and opportunities that climate change provides.” It also “urges lawyers to engage in pro bono activities to aid efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.”

The need for climate-conscious law practice

Climate change has altered the background circumstances as well as the risks and opportunities in many fields of law. This is true not just for environmental and energy law; it is also true in such wide-ranging fields as real estate, insurance, immigration, corporate, and transactional law. As presidential climate envoy John Kerry said in a speech to the ABA House of Delegates in 2020, “You are all climate lawyers now, whether you want to be or not.” Both client demand and the need to attract and keep young lawyers are driving many law organizations to move their law practices in a climate-conscious direction. Still, a great many lawyers and law students lack the tools to engage in this kind of lawyering. As a result, many projects and activities move ahead with little or no serious attention to growing climate risks and little or no attention to opportunities provided by climate change.

ABA participation at COP27

ABA representatives John Dernbach, Tracy Hester, and Roger Martella participated in person with representatives of other bar associations at three events at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on the role of bar associations and lawyers. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time that the ABA has ever participated in a COP for this purpose. The first event featured welcoming remarks by Deborah Enix-Ross, president of the ABA, as well as remarks by the presidents of the OAB, IBA, and LSEW. The Canadian Bar Association, the United Kingdom Bar Council, and the Law Association of Zambia were also each represented in at least one event. At these events, representatives of these organizations discussed the global legal community’s current response to the climate crisis and what more lawyers and law associations can do. One of these events can be viewed here.

ABA interests advanced at COP27

Our presence at COP27 advanced ABA’s interests in the following ways, among others:

  1. We established the ABA as among the first bar associations in the world to work toward making the legal profession a force on behalf of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation. This is no small thing. As Steven Gray of DLA Piper in London said at one of our events, the law profession is among the last of the professional organizations to come to the table on climate change, and it has among the most to contribute.
  2. We learned a great deal about what other law associations are doing, much of which could be adapted to the United States. For example, the Law Society of England and Wales is preparing guidance for solicitors on how their professional duties are impacted by climate change and greenwashing.
  3. We helped build a stronger foundation for an international ABA presence on the role of lawyers and law associations in addressing climate change, including at COP28 later this year.

Possible next steps

The ABA is already planning with other bar associations for its participation in COP28. But to be effective at COP28, the ABA also needs to show what it is doing to foster climate conscious lawyering at home. Among other things, the ABA might consider:

  1. Conducting numerous webinars, conference panels, and the like on particular topics related to climate-conscious lawyering.
  2. Adapting the Law Society of England and Wales guidance on climate change counseling for use by U.S. lawyers.
  3. Adapting the work of the Chancery Lane Project, which is based on UK law, to U.S. law. The project involves drafting private contracts, including supply chain contracts, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Holding regular essay contests or other crowdsourcing activities on how to engage lawyers to accelerate action on climate change.

While COP27 was going on, the ABA published Sustainability Essentials: A Leadership Guide for Lawyers, by John Dernbach, Matthew Bogoshian, and Irma Russell. It is a short (126-page) guide for lawyers who seek to build climate change and sustainable development work into their law practice, regardless of the practice area. This is the exact topic discussed at COP27. In addition to the steps noted above, the ABA might seek to make the book as widely available as possible and use it to conduct webinars and other educational programming.

Climate-conscious lawyering provides an opportunity for the ABA to contribute to an existential problem it has already recognized. What would happen if a larger share of the nation’s 1.3 million practicing lawyers engaged in climate-conscious lawyering?