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A legal conference reveals a field that is dangerously oblivious

“Lawfare” – the practice of seeking climate reparations through novel litigation approaches – is a growing enthusiasm among the climate-concerned, so the recent conference on the subject at the University of Dundee Law School promised to be a fascinating chance to see what was going on in the field.

This was an international affair, with several speakers having flown in from the USA, and at least one from Australia, for the event. I was particularly amused by Professor Don Smith, the compere of the first session, who had made the 4000-mile trip from Denver, Colorado, to tell the audience that Donald Trump was a terrible man who didn’t take climate change seriously enough. And as if to underline his lack of self-awareness, he proceeded to invite all the hundred or so members of the audience to come to Colorado for a visit. Nobody else seemed to see the funny side of this.

Still, as a comedy turn, Prof Smith was great value for money. Of his numerous denunciations of Mr Trump, I particularly enjoyed the one where he asked, in tones of righteous outrage, what sort of a man would call Greta Thunberg ‘a very happy young girl’. ‘She’s a grown woman!’, he declared. Although I appeared to be, once again, the only one laughing. They are serious people, these legal scholars.

To be fair, the other speakers were much more serious minded. Apart from the lawfare specialists, there were an economist and a couple of scientists involved too. Only one of these mattered though: Fredi Otto of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford, who was the star turn of the first day, opening proceedings with a presentation that showed how she used climate models to estimate how man had increased the risk of bad weather. I managed to ask her how her confidence in attribution of extreme events (including rainfall!) could be reconciled to the IPCC’s lukewarm statements on changes in such events and she said that this would change in the Sixth Assessment. Quite how this will work, I’m not sure, but she seemed to think that the models were adequate to back legal claims for damages in some parts of the world, but not others.

The legal specialists were much less sure of their ground, and we had a series of speakers explaining the difficulties of stretching human rights laws to give the “right” answer on climate change, or getting environmental clauses written into constitutions. Still, most speakers felt that they were making progress and one even said that in ten years’s time there would be a full-formed tort law covering climate change. Much consideration was given to the point at which the blame for climate damages could start to be apportioned – the first assessment report? the second? – and to whom – oil companies or countries.

Throughout proceedings, there was a sense of frustration with governments for not doing what the lawfare community felt was “enough”. Prof Smith, in another of his anti-Trump fulminations, asked what kind of a person would remove pollution controls on motor cars. The answer seemed obvious to me – one who was responsive to voters who had different priorities – perhaps cheap transport, perhaps jobs and a vibrant economy. That’s the job of politicians – to balance different priorities of different people.

This is where the lawfare community seems to me to be mostly well-intentioned, but dangerously isolated from real-world realities. They are monomaniacs, obsessed only with delivering us from climate change, regardless of the cost and oblivious to people’s other priorities. They would probably not dispute this either: they would argue that climate change is so all-pervading that it must take priority over everything.

But really everything? Recall one previous occasion when the fight against climate change was put ahead of other, more prosaic struggles: the biofuels drive, from 2007 onwards, led to the shelving of dull, twentieth-century concerns like putting food on tables and almost led to disaster in the process. It was later denounced as “a crime against humanity” by the UN. There was no sign among the delegates in Dundee that any lesson had been learned from that story. They were probably oblivious. Just as they are probably oblivious to the horrors of indoor air pollution that climate policy will perpetuate.

I came away from the conference with the impression of having been embedded in the middle of the metropolitan elite for a couple of days: comfortable, well-fed, intellectually cocooned, and either oblivious or contemptuous of the outside world and its manifold hopes and desires. They will seek to make the law work in the favour, regardless of what voters choose. If you are among the world’s poor, or among the world’s democrats, these are dangerous people.