General counsel lack climate change leadership

In-house legal teams see their role as advisory rather than leading or pioneering says Dutch research.


Almost 50 percent of European in-house lawyers polled recently said they expect their organization to face legal risks due to climate change did, but only 15 percent said their legal departments were well prepared to deal with such threats, says an FT report.

Dutch litmus test?

The survey was carried out by the Dutch Association of In-House Counsel and law firm Houthoff, and most of those questioned were Dutch. The FT notes the Netherlands has become “a central battleground” in a new class of lawsuits globally amid growing concern about tackling climate change. The report notes. “If in-house counsel in a climate hotspot such as the Netherlands are not fully prepared for this, it seems unlikely that their counterparts in other countries are any more prepared.” In 2015, a Dutch court ordered the government to speed up its efforts to cut carbon emissions in a historic ruling that has inspired environmental groups in other countries to pursue similar action. Talking to the FT, Mark Clarke, a partner at White & Case, explained “That’s a landmark decision and very significant because it has essentially opened up Europe as a forum for climate change litigation.” Some 1,300 climate cases have been filed worldwide since 1986, mostly in the US, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York and other groups that track such litigation.

No pioneers

According to the Dutch survey only 7 percent  agreed their role in preparing organisations for the impact of climate change was to be a proactive ‘pioneer,’ while nearly 66 per cent of the lawyers questioned said their role was predominantly advisory. However, James Thornton, founder of ClientEarth, an environmental law firm that has scored a string of victories across Europe since its launch in 2007, told the FT “The role of the general counsel really is key because they can either be a barrier to change the company needs to make, or they can be enablers of the change that the company should want to make.” In 1997, there were only 72 climate laws and policies around the world, according to the Grantham research institute. Today there are at least 1,500 and more than 100 have been introduced since 2016, when the Paris Agreement came into effect; a list surely likely to grow.

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