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January/February 2024

Views from the Chair

Jeffery Scott Dennis


  • Discusses SEER’s leading role within the ABA and the legal community by emphasizing the significance of addressing environmental justice.
  • Looks at SEER’s significant role in ensuring that American lawyers are represented in national and international conversations on climate change and sustainable development. 
Views from the Chair
KDP via Getty Images

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Environment, energy, and resource lawyers find themselves at the forefront of pressing societal challenges like environmental justice, global climate change and sustainability, and recovery of communities from ever more frequent natural disasters. These aren’t just legal or policy issues, they are human rights and rule-of-law issues. Lawyers and the legal system have a critical role in helping societies navigate these issues and find solutions. Our Section is diligently addressing these crucial topics, striving to provide our members with the skills and strategies necessary to fulfill the vital role that lawyers play in these issues. Additionally, we are dedicated to promoting the significance of the rule of law in effectively addressing and resolving these challenges.

Environmental justice—defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies—has been an urgently important issue for decades. Today, the Biden administration is taking significant and unprecedented steps to address past environmental injustice and, going forward, require that infrastructure and energy projects funded under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act deliver at least 40 percent of their benefits to environmental justice and underserved communities.

Our Section has played a leading role within the ABA and the legal community by emphasizing the significance of addressing environmental justice and recognizing the rule of law implications when environmental injustices are overlooked. Moreover, we have been instrumental in delivering content to our members to equip them with the knowledge and ethical guidance needed to effectively manage these issues in their practice. In August 2021, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution authored and championed by SEER that makes it ABA policy to advance environmental justice principles in its programs, policies, and activities, and advocate for environmental justice legislation and policy. Our members are key leaders on the Environmental Justice Task Force created by that resolution, which works to implement the resolution’s policy direction and elevate environmental justice principles across the ABA and the legal community. We’ve also produced numerous conference panels, programs, and articles to educate members and the legal community on environmental justice and share cutting edge strategies and practical tips for addressing environmental justice in their work. Head to our Environmental Justice Resources page to find all of these great products.

Global climate change and sustainable development issues are also front and center not just for the current U.S. administration, but for governments and communities around the world. Rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events, which scientists attribute to global climate change influenced by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, are affecting communities all over the globe. Advocates argue that these climate change impacts are also exacerbating socioeconomic disparities, especially in smaller developing countries.

Our Section has led the ABA in ensuring that American lawyers are represented in national and international conversations on climate change and sustainable development. We spearheaded the establishment of ABA policies committing to sustainable development and the promotion of better understanding of sustainable development principles in relevant fields of law, as well as policies urging U.S. policy makers to take steps to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions at home and engage in international negotiations to reduce GHG emissions globally. SEER has also published three editions of Global Climate Change and U.S. Law (Michael B. Gerrard, Jody Freeman, and Michael Burger, Eds.), one of the most comprehensive treatises in the field. Our Section’s educational programs continue to provide key updates on climate change–related litigation and regulations to our members. Most recently, the one-day virtual Clean Air Act Conference featured discussion of GHG emissions reduction regulations impacting power plants and transportation, with numerous speakers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including Joe Goffman, the nation’s top air regulation official. You can now purchase these recorded CLE sessions if you missed them.

In addition to setting ABA policy and providing forums for education and discussion of key climate change and sustainable development issues, SEER is also examining the critical role of lawyers in addressing these issues. In 2022, the Section published Sustainability Essentials: A Leadership Guide for Lawyers, authored by John C. Dernbach, Matthew Bogoshian, and former Section chair Irma Russell. The book forcefully and concisely articulates the critical role that lawyers and the rule of law play in meeting sustainable development goals, provides a practical guide for new or experienced lawyers to incorporate sustainability principles in their practice, and explains how a lawyer’s ethical obligations are implicated in sustainable development issues. Further, for several years SEER has supported delegates to the annual conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) to represent American lawyers and promote discussion of the role of lawyers and the rule of law in addressing climate change. At the most recent COP28 in Dubai, SEER held two events on the role of lawyers in combating climate change and supported the attendance of two in-person delegates (Achinthi Vithanage and Nadia Ahmad) to represent American lawyers and engage with attendees on behalf of the ABA.

The societal imperative to address climate change and sustainable development is never more apparent than in the wake of natural disasters fueled by ever more frequent extreme weather events. Environment, energy, and resource lawyers are essential to helping communities address the human toll of these tragedies, recover from them, and become more resilient to future events. To further explore the legal and policy issues implicated by disasters and the role of lawyers in recovery and resilience, SEER is holding a one-day Disaster Recovery and Resilience Conference on February 8–9, 2024, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’m excited to bring the Section to Puerto Rico to gain insights from its experience and explore lessons learned that lawyers can employ there and elsewhere to aid recovery and boost community resilience in the future.

Lawyers have always been part of the foundation of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Today, U.S. environment, energy, and resource specialists are bringing our unique skills to tackle some of the most pressing human rights and rule-of-law issues of our day. I am proud that SEER is at the forefront, playing a significant role in leading these efforts.