The purpose of government is to secure the rights of the people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Climate change threatens all of these.
INSPIRATION FROM THE PAST
In June of 1963, the racial climate in parts of the United States was bad, and nowhere worse than in Alabama, where law enforcement had taken sides against the civil rights protesters with police dogs, night sticks and fire hoses. Alabama Governor George Wallace declared that he would disregard the federal court order that prohibited interference with the admission of African-American students at the University of Alabama.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Geraldine Segal challenged her husband, attorney Bernard G. Segal: “Well, what is the bar of the nation doing about this? What should you be doing?” Attorney Segal took his wife’s challenge seriously, and with the help of another lawyer, Jerome J. Shestack, the two set about calling leaders of the bar across the country. The following Tuesday, a total of forty-six lawyers from around the country joined in a statement published in two Alabama newspapers calling on the governor of Alabama to respect the rule of law.
That same day, June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech on civil rights by radio and television from the Oval Office in which he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After that speech, he learned about the statement published by the bar leaders and issued a call to the bar for leaders of the legal community to join him for a meeting at the White House.
On June 21, 1963, 244 leaders of the American legal community met in the East Room of the White House where President Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urged the lawyers to use their training and influence to move the struggle for the protection of civil rights from the streets to the courts. President Kennedy had held similar meetings with representatives of business, education, and the clergy, but the decision to call a meeting with the lawyers and the timing of the meeting was born of a sense of urgency about the absence of the organized bar in the civil rights movement. That was the genesis of the The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and this story is told on its website.
The need for action on civil rights in the summer of 1963 was undeniable. The need for action on climate change now is undeniable. Just as the support of the legal community was needed in 1963 on civil rights, so too is it now needed on climate change.
THE PRESENT AND FUTURE
Lawyers from around the country and the world have been working on lawful solutions to climate change for many years now, but far too few of them and with too little support from the organized legal community. That began to change after 2000 with the advent of sustainable development goals promoted by the ABA, the passage of ABA resolutions in 2003, 2008, and 2009, and efforts by state and local bar associations around the country.
The Sabin Center and the New York State Bar Association convened a Bar Association Leaders Climate Change Summit on June 17, 2016. That Summit kicked off a collaboration among bar association members from across the country intended to support their exchange of information about initiatives–established, planned, contemplated–that relate to climate change. Out of that grew a national collaboration of lawyers dedicated to fighting climate change through law. We have held numerous meetings and conferences to date. Our next big step is The First National Conference of Lawyers Committed to Addressing the Climate Emergency, scheduled for April 28, 2107, at American University Washington College of Law. There we intend to discuss our future plans and continuation of the national movement, inspired by not just by the civil rights leaders of the 1960s but also those environmental leaders and lawyers who have brought us this far.
A CALL TO ACTION FOR ALL LAWYERS
The call to action on climate change is not just for environmental lawyers. The problem is too big, too important, and too complex. We need support and engagement from all aspects of the legal community. To learn more about why all lawyers should care and act on climate change, click on this article.