Climate change challenges create opportunities for legal community

Phyllis Cuttino, President and CEO for the Climate Reality Project, is urging law students and legal professionals to prioritize climate change.

“For those of you in the legal profession — or who will be in a legal profession — there are so many compelling opportunities to engage,” she said. “Climate change intersects with countless areas of legal practice: business litigation, insurance, finance, energy securities, as well as administrative, environmental, land use, and natural resources. I encourage you to use this opportunity to take action and engage.”

Cuttino was the keynote speaker at the 15th annual Law & Society symposium on Friday at the Charleston Museum Auditorium. The event, “Climate Change and the Law: Rising Tides Wash Up Legal Issues,” featured legal, academic, and climate experts discussing legal and legislative trends emerging from climate change. The annual event is presented by the Charleston Law Review and the Riley Institute at Furman University.

According to Cuttino, climate change is becoming increasingly litigious. During her keynote message Cuttino reported that more than 1,000 climate-related legal cases were brought between 2015-2021. The lawsuits, like the subject, are being initiated by organizations representing both sides of the issue.

“Litigation is growing not only as a strategy by activists who want to challenge, undermine, or delay climate alone policy making and cases are targeting a wider variety of private sector and financial actors,” said Cuttino. “We need to develop the legal frameworks needed to prevent the climate crisis from reaching catastrophic proportions.”

Cuttino said extreme temperatures have led to increased rates in strokes, and other heat related illnesses; ozone eroision, which aggravates lung diseases, including asthma; and heavy rainfall which she believes has led to shoreline erosion, loss of coastal wetlands, and flooding.

“We’re wiping out ecosystems and species at an alarming rate,” said Cuttino. “Our oceans are being polluted and they’re productivity endangered. As my boss, former Vice President Gore often likes to say, ‘We are treating the atmosphere like an open sewer.’ It’s evident in the changes all around us.”

Cuttino said the Climate Reality Project is focused on five critical steps to transition toward net zero emissions by 2030:

  1. Cease all new fossil fuel development
  2. Accelerate the transition to clean energy solutions
  3. Initiate a campaign to call out corporate “greenwashing”
  4. Make global finance a force for good. Pushing major institutions to catalyze the clean energy transition and get developing nations
  5. Create equitable pathways in the transition from fossil fuel

She stressed that climate change has some “very real” challenges ahead, but noted that the complex challenges are creating opportunities in the legal profession.

“That’s the good news,” said Cuttino.