Every Lawyer Can Be a Climate Lawyer

It’s time for the legal profession to take a stand on working for the fossil fuel industry.

In the fall of 2020, when California was in the midst of a record-setting fire season, I spent a sleepless night worrying about my home state. I wasn’t living in the state at the time, but I was born there, and I still have relatives in Central California. Fortunately, my family didn’t encounter the fires themselves, but as my worry for their homes and lungs faded, it gave way to an even bigger concern. What would happen to all the families that were impacted by the fires? I had become uncomfortably familiar with the idea of islands and coastlines disappearing due to rising sea levels, but I hadn’t thought much about the vast stretches of non-coastal land rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life.

Haley Czarnek is challenging the legal industry to stop exacerbating the climate crisis through her work with Law Students for Climate Accountability. Photo by Vasily Koloda/Unsplash.

For years, I had tried to reduce my carbon footprint. I became a vegetarian nearly a decade ago when I read about the resources it takes to produce meat and the destruction that accompanies industrial agriculture, and I reduced my plastic waste as best I could. But the fires sparked something in me. I realized that I had to stop focusing all of my climate anxieties on my personal consumption. As I thought about how climate change would force millions of people around the globe to decide whether to flee their homes temporarily or to relocate for good, I knew it was time to shift my individual effort into collective work.

I was a second-year law student at the time, and I decided to put together a small virtual conference about climate displacement. Through that event, I met Camila Bustos and Alisa White, two of the student co-founders of Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA), a brand new, law student-led organization pushing the legal profession to phase out fossil fuel representation. My brief experience in law school had already given me a sense of the elitism and hyper-competitiveness of the legal profession, and I was impressed that Alisa and Camila were bringing people together to challenge traditional ideas about legal practice. They were posing questions I hadn’t heard anywhere in my first-year courses: What role do lawyers play in the climate crisis? What power do law students have to protect our one shared home?

They were also providing some preliminary answers. Corporate lawyers frequently lobby for fossil fuel companies, facilitate oil and gas transactions, and defend bad actors in court. They often do so as members of large, elite teams facing off against nonprofits and pro bono attorneys in David-and-Goliath-style legal battles. The new group Alisa and Camila were helping to build was a unique space where students could speak up about the harms of fossil fuel representation and harness their privilege to forge a legal culture compatible with human life.

Czarnek’s group, Law Students for Climate Accountability, is helping build a unique space where students can speak up about the harms of fossil fuel representation and harness their privilege to forge a legal culture compatible with human life. Photo of Czarnek, provided.

Not long after the conference, they sent out applications for the first National Student Leadership Committee. I applied immediately. When I was fortunate enough to join the committee, I found an incredible community of advocates. Together, we created structures for the organization that were both durable and flexible enough to persist in spite of the difficulties of student organizing. Soon, we began to wonder if we needed a permanent staff member who would not have to deal with the cyclical pressures of exam season and graduation.

As we thought more seriously about the need for full-time support, several folks worried about the difficulty of finding the right candidate. I said I would do the job myself if it came down to it. I didn’t really expect that they’d take me up on the offer, but a few months later, my team gave me the chance of a lifetime. Today, as LSCA’s National Director, I am able to support students organizing on their campuses, connect with lawyers and professors doing incredible work, and engage law firms in conversations about their fossil fuels clients.

When I first stepped into the role, I was hit hard by imposter syndrome; I was afraid I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to support my colleagues in the ways they deserved. Now, several months into developing the position, I’ve learned to face that fear by remembering what I found so inspiring about LSCA in the first place — that as one small part of a burgeoning movement, there is no challenge I have to face alone.

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