Introducing the first German Climate Clinic

By Hannah Foehr. The Climate Clinic offers free legal guidance on climate-related issues. In what ways a voluntary association can contribute to making our future a more sustainable one will be expanded on in the following.

While the law is a crucial instrument for governing the (fast and just) transition to climate neutrality, it currently often hinders meaningful climate action. Members of Fridays for Future Germany experienced this first-hand during lobby talks with lawmakers of the German Federal Parliament. The Parliamentarians hastily rejected the climate activists’ ideas for the reason that they were—according to those lawmakers—not legally feasible.

The ‘legal feasibility argument’ can be, as it was in this case, a dead end. While economic or scientific arguments can, to a certain extent, be understood, brought forward, and contradicted by laypeople, the interwovenness of legal systems means that many nonlawyers lack a full comprehension of the legal principles as they apply to a given issue. To evaluate an idea with regard to its legality and legal implications, one needs an understanding of the systematisation and linkages that define our legal orders. Legal knowledge tends to be an expert, exclusive, and consequently expensive resource, which has the potential to obstruct productive societal discourse. Law becomes mysticism; an exclusionary language of power, spoken to preserve the status quo.

The Climate Clinic was created to change that. Its members work to make the German legal system a fertile ground and more accessible resource in the fight against climate change. Founded in Hamburg in 2020, around thirty members from all over the country make up the Climate Clinic today. The main aim which motivates its members is to inform and educate nonlawyers on topics at the intersection of climate change and law. Through their efforts, the law is becoming an effective and multi-faceted tool – exactly what the World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action encourages its signatories to do.

The recent launch of the Climate Clinic’s website has made it possible for a wider range of individuals and organisations to submit climate-related queries. Needless to say, this is a hugely beneficial step in making legal knowledge on climate issues more accessible. To give only a few examples of how the Climate Clinic has assisted individuals and organisations in the past: they have for instance proof-checked public relations material distributed by climate activists at protests, and also given briefings on specific legal topics, for example in preparation for lobby talks with members of the German Federal Parliament. By doing so, the team ensures that climate activists can take action with more legal certainty, clarity, and confidence.

Besides responding to specific questions, the Climate Clinic is also actively involved in pioneering research. In collaboration with leading NGOs members seek to clarify complex legal issues, such as whether climate protest camps are protected by Article 8 of the German Constitution (freedom of assembly). Here the law is utilised in a leading-edge manner, in order to support the adoption of climate-friendly interpretations. Although much of the research done by the Climate Clinic stays confidential and is utilised internally by the NGOs concerned, a summary of the research project on climate camps can be found here.

In addition to working with and transmuting existing law, a few team members have joined forces with GermanZero in the first half of this year, and drafted parts of the organisation’s 1.5-degree-legislative package. GermanZero is an independent organisation which has drafted a counterproposal to the government’s climate package, which they are now seeking to bring before the German parliament. Almost 200 lawyers, and amongst them a team from the Climate Clinic, drafted the 544-page legislative package. They were supported in the process by several hundred experts, and the public was also able to comment and make suggestions via a participation platform. Such collaborations, bringing together legal expertise, insights from climate science, and the public, can offer true solutions to the challenge of charting a just and equitable transition to climate neutrality.  In this way, as the Lawyers’ Climate Pledge says, the law can be transformed into a positive source of social change.

The raison d’être of the Climate Clinic—to educate and inform nonlawyers on climate-related matters—is reflected in all that they do, be it the production of information sheets on relevant legal questions, or explaining important legal developments like the German Federal Constitutional Court’s decision on the Climate Change Act (May 2021) in ways that are accessible for the general public. Court rulings have undeniably represented turning points in inspiring climate action. The case of Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands, in which the Dutch Supreme Court decided that the government has a constitutional duty to protect its citizens from climate change, inspired lawsuits all around the world, seeking to legally define the responsibility of actors towards the climate. Similarly, the German Federal Constitutional Court’s decision on the Climate Change Act, which ruled that the German climate law is partly unconstitutional, could become such as a turning point. That is at least what members of the Climate Clinic are experiencing, with interest in the organisation growing after the ruling. The ruling made offered a tangible example of how the law can be used to define our future and change our societies for the better – all in all, demonstrating how lawyers can help to empower individuals to be agents of change. It should be a priority to foster the sense of optimism that grew in the aftermath of this judgment—getting more young people involved in the process of integrating climate issues into their life of working with the law—and thus initiating, supporting, and fostering legal change.

Facilitated by a German-wide network and the proximity of their members to their respective law schools, the Climate Clinic further seeks to bring forward long-term change within law schools and more specifically their curriculums. In the words of the World Lawyers’ Pledge on Climate Action, students have an opportunity to “stimulate and demand engagement with climate change issues throughout and beyond our legal education”.

The Climate Clinic works on all these different fronts – offering legal guidance, but also by aiming to innovate how the law is read and written. Its members mainstream, in their own efficiently creative way, climate issues in law. In doing so, the Climate Clinic is a prime example demonstrating that the law can indeed have a shaping role in making our future a sustainable one.

Find out more about the Climate Clinic on their new website as well as their Instagram.

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