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March/April 2024

ABA at COP28: Calling on the legal community for a common cause

Achinthi C Vithanage and Nadia Ahmad


  • Discusses the ABA’s involvement, in collaboration with other bar associations, at COP28 to underscore the importance of global cooperation and shared knowledge in tackling climate change.
  • The underlying theme of all the events was that lawyers, bar associations, and legal professional associations share a common cause in climate change and, in turn, share a common responsibility to take action.
  • Looks ahead to COP29 and how an ABA presence would demonstrate the organization’s commitment to its core values. 
ABA at COP28: Calling on the legal community for a common cause
Stefan Tomic via Getty Images

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Climate change is impacting lives, livelihoods, lifestyles, and even the law, as every individual, organization, business, and practice is affected, and the legal profession is recognizing its unique position to drive change and empower climate action.

There are perhaps 20 million lawyers around the world. According to a 2023 ABA Report, over 1.3 million are in the United States. Lawyers are at the centers of decision-making and in the highest echelons of government. They advise the most powerful, they represent the most vulnerable, and advocate for all in between. They are adjudicators, drafters, negotiators, advisers, mediators, and translators of complex scientific data and goals into actionable policies and legal frameworks. They come in all varieties and at all levels of governance, from international to local, from public to private. Most of all, they are professionally mandated to deliver on the quality of justice.

Needless to say, the legal profession is well-placed to offer or support the solutions needed for the climate crisis. While environmental, energy, and resource lawyers have dominated the climate action space, their efforts are not enough. The multifaceted nature of the climate crisis demands the collective effort of the global legal community and a commensurate evolution of the role of law and lawyers in that endeavor.

Yet the call to the legal community was but a whisper until recent years.

The ABA’s role in the legal community’s awakening

While the ABA demonstrated a strong commitment to the leadership role of lawyers, judges, and legal professionals in sustainable development through policy positions dating back to 1991, more recent policies calling for climate action through legal, policy, financial, and educational mechanisms set the stage for a wave of action by the legal community worldwide.

The ABA’s adoption of its climate change resolution (Res. 111) shepherded by Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) attorneys in 2019, was that turning point. The resolution encouraged 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.” It entreated lawyers “to advise their clients of the risks and opportunities that climate change provides,” urging them “to engage in pro bono activities to aid efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.”

Soon after, the International Bar Association (IBA) issued its Climate Crisis Statement. Climate resolutions and policies followed from the Law Society of England and Wales (LSEW), the Law Council of Australia, and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, among others. Admitted by the Conference of the Parties (COP) as an observer organization to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2021, the ABA sent SEER representatives for the first time to COP26 in Glasgow and sparked collaborative beginnings with members of other bar associations. Since then, the ABA jointly held two events at COP27 on the role of lawyers and bar associations in addressing the climate crisis in conjunction with bar associations from around the world. They collectively engaged in the 2022 Climate Law and Governance Day and held a side session at the 2023 Bonn Climate Change Conference. In the lead-up to COP28, SEER hosted numerous panels, webinars, and legal ethics discussions on the nature of climate-conscious lawyering, the impact of domestic and international climate laws on legal advice, and the emerging expectation of climate competency in legal professional conduct.

ABA participation at COP28

At COP28, the ABA kept up its momentum, collaborating with the IBA, the Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB), and the LSEW along with the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Environmental Law’s Climate Change Law Specialist Group to underscore the importance of global cooperation and shared knowledge in tackling climate change. The bar associations also expanded their network of attorneys and sought to further expand worldwide collaborations, meeting with other lawyers and networks, including in countries such as Bahrain, Cameroon, China, Egypt, Eritrea, France, India, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.

Sponsored by SEER and serving as official ABA Delegates, SEER representatives Achinthi Vithanage and Nadia Ahmad participated in person at three events at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates:

The underlying theme of all the events was that lawyers, bar associations, and legal professional associations share a common cause in climate change and, in turn, share a common responsibility to take action. There was resounding recognition that these organizations are also positioned to drive change and empower a range of stakeholders to act. Participants also agreed that implementing effective climate response strategies will continue to require active involvement by the legal community within holistic, cross-sectoral, and multi-stakeholder approaches.

The ABA also hosted a booth in the Blue Zone during which domestic and international lawyers, law professors, law students, and U.S. lawmakers, including Senate Climate Change Task Force Chair Senator Ed Markey, stopped by to speak about the ABA’s and SEER’s involvement at COPs and the ABA’s efforts to elevate the role of lawyers and bar associations in the climate crisis. It was an opportunity to share the ABA’s work with COP attendees as well as solicit new ABA SEER members, law students for the Environmental Law Society Network, and attendees for ABA events at COP.

This was also the first year that the COP allowed for virtual official delegates alongside in-person delegations. The virtual team of ABA Delegates consisted of SEER representatives Amy Edwards, John Dernbach, Tracy Hester, and Renee Dopplick.

Resources to gather the legal community

Fortunately, lawyers and law associations that are new to the cause need not start afresh. At COP28, a plethora of resources were showcased by participating legal associations:

Looking ahead to COP29


COP28 offered an important opportunity for the standing collaboration of bar associations to reconnect and ponder next steps. Further, with each new COP location, new partners emerge. COP28’s location in Dubai attracted attorneys from the Middle Eastern region. As the COP pivots to the Central Asian region, the collaboration of bar associations is set to expand its outreach. An ABA presence at COP29, led by SEER representatives, would certainly demonstrate the organization’s commitment to its core values of advancing justice, human rights, the rule of law, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession and justice systems in the context of climate change. But grounding that presence in sustained commitment is more impactful.

Accordingly, purposeful and continued practice on home ground begins now. Steps may include:

  • Hosting conference panels, webinars, and community conversations across all ABA Sections, partnering with SEER, to elevate the need for climate competent lawyering;
  • Supporting the adaptation of the work done by the Law Society of England and Wales and the Chancery Lane Project for U.S. law and the U.S. legal community;
  • Hosting tailored workshops for different legal demographics, such as law students, recent law graduates, experienced attorneys, legislative counsel, judges, and law professors, on pathways to build climate change and sustainable development work into their legal practice, by utilizing ABA SEER’s 2023 publication, Sustainability Essentials: A Leadership Guide for Lawyers; and
  • Updating the ABA’s Climate Change and Sustainable Development Resolutions to reflect the evolution of the role of lawyers and legal associations in a time of planetary crises.

A clarion call

At a time where there is no greater common cause than addressing climate change, all lawyers have a responsibility to take climate action. In 2021, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry called on all lawyers to step up as “climate lawyers.” From an intimate gathering of like minds at COP26 and the ABA-hosted inaugural events at COP27, to the rising tide of legal professionals and bar associations at COP28, the profession is witnessing a swing in its step. The ABA, along with other bar associations and organizations of legal professionals, has sounded a clarion call to the legal community. Since the common cause we face waits for no one, it would be folly for the legal community to wait any longer. The call to action is now or never.