It's Time For Lawyers To Stand Up For Climate Justice

By Amy Laura Cahn | April 20, 2023, 6:01 PM EDT ·

Amy Laura Cahn
Amy Laura Cahn
Thirteen years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 crew members and injured 17 more, and led to the worst offshore oil drilling disaster in history.

Millions of gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, killing wildlife, closing fishing grounds — including areas that had just reopened after years of closures following Hurricane Katrina — and irreparably damaging coastal communities' health and way of life.

Attorneys jumped in to advocate for government action and corporate accountability. They represented fisherfolk driven to bankruptcy. They filed claims for unemployment, physical damage, economic harm and workers' compensation.

They collaborated across the Gulf South states to facilitate access to resources for affected communities. And they secured a record-setting $20.8 billion settlement.

Yet the price paid by BP PLC is trivial compared to the price paid by those whose lives were disrupted by the oil drilling disaster — including Black, Indigenous and Southeast Asian coastal communities.

Consider just one point of comparison: A study published in January in Environmental Pollution shows the aftereffects of the spill still degrade coastal wetlands, eating away at the land even today.[1] This means less protection from extreme storms, diminished nursery space for marine life and fewer actual acres of marshland every year.

Ask BP, on the other hand, and you'll hear about 2022's record profits, increasing shareholder dividends and this year's record stock prices.

This pattern of injustice and inequity repeats time and again across the U.S. The framework of a just transition asks us to shift how we distribute power and resources for our economy, our democracy, this land and the peoples living upon it. That's where just transition lawyering comes in.

Just transition lawyering calls us to support communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, pairing strategies to stop the bad with solutions that build the new. Just transition lawyering calls us to listen to the expertise of communities and movements marginalized from decisions that have shaped their health, welfare and well-being over generations.

And it calls us as lawyers to abandon our silos for a more holistic approach — intentionally cultivating cooperation, coordination and relationships across geographies, practice areas and strategies.

The law can be a powerful mobilization tactic for communities organizing for a just transition. In RISE St. James v. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Louisiana's 19th Judicial District Court agreed with Black residents of St. James Parish, deciding in 2022 to block new plastics factories from being built.

When community groups across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina mobilized to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline via 2020's Friends of Buckingham v. State Air Pollution Control Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit admonished that "environmental justice is not a box to be checked."

And in the pending case of Comité Dialogo Ambiental v. Federal Emergency Management Agency, community organizations have filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against FEMA to ensure that billions of dollars in disaster recovery money will be used to rebuild a healthier and more resilient Puerto Rico for its most vulnerable residents.

The same communities hurt worst and first by the climate crisis and our extractive economy are developing and implementing solutions to repair past harms and build transformative systems that promote fairness and equity for all.

These solutions address basic and intertwined needs — such as access to food, water, energy, housing and living wage jobs — while centering self-determination, protecting the existence and integrity of public institutions, and fostering community stewardship over life-giving resources.

Here's what just a few of those solutions look like:

  • An energy platform for Puerto Rico that pairs self-determination, accountable governance and community self-sufficiency with justly sourced renewables;

  • A transition to offshore wind energy that guarantees benefits for historically marginalized host communities and labor;

  • A municipal water system for the city of Baltimore that codifies a "water for all" assistance program, and rights, protections and due process for residents; and

  • The several hundred worker cooperatives and community land trusts throughout the country.

Signs of the climate crisis have become too obvious for Americans to miss. We see record-breaking heat waves and wildfires in California, unprecedented flooding from Montana to Missouri, and communities in Puerto Rico and across the Gulf South who struggle to fully recover from one hurricane before the next storm arrives.

The legacies of structural racism and colonialism are also starkly clear. We see them in race-based patterns of policing and punishment, and in how the segregation imprinted on our landscapes shapes the distribution of damage from pollution and climate disasters.

We see them in the failures of governments and industry to seek free, prior and informed consent before encroaching on ancestral lands, and in the persistent barriers to Black, brown and Indigenous communities seeking redress from courts or through exercising their right to vote.

As serious money begins to flow from Washington to fund climate solutions across the country, we are making choices as a nation about whether to double down on business as usual, or fully invest in community-driven solutions that move us toward a just and thriving economy and democracy.

When communities seek lawyers' guidance in advancing their solutions, we have the opportunity to leverage our skills while supporting their leadership, assisting in transforming aspirations into realities that are changing the world.

It's meaningful work — and it's probably coming to a community near you. In this all-hands-on-deck moment, the planet needs lawyers to fight on the front lines and advance a world where everyone thrives.

Amy Laura Cahn is the legal director at Taproot Earth, and the lead organizer of the Just Transition Lawyering Network.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


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