Canadian law firms are complicit in climate change

Canadian law firms are complicit in climate change

Canadian law firms are getting rich, to the tune of billions of dollars, helping the fossil fuel industry to drive climate change. 

Greenhouse gases are the biggest drivers of climate change, and oil and gas companies account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While Canada faces more frequent and intense weather events, like fires, floods and heat waves, driven by climate change, a new report by The University of Toronto Law Union (UTLU) in partnership with the Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA) exposes how law firms are getting rich enabling oil and gas companies to keep emitting. 

Lawyers are often brought in to do the dirty work for industry: acting as registered lobbyists, handling legal challenges, workshopping public relations spin, and stifling opposition by bringing SLAPP suits or injunctions against climate activists including Indigenous peoples defending their land rights. 

The report examines the energy-related litigation and transactions completed by five Canadian law firms: Torys LLP, Fasken, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Miller Thomson LLP; and Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP from 2008 through–February 2023.  According to the report, the energy transactions completed by these five firms combined total 500 billion dollars. That is money made from facilitating production of the very carbon and methane emissions that are fuelling extreme weather events in Canada and around the world.

While there are some law firms trying to shift their business to renewable energy or step away from more contentious oil and gas work, the gap between cases firms take for fossil fuels versus those for renewables is an indicator of whether it’s a true commitment, or merely lip-service. For example, the law firm Fasken has a page on their website about their commitment to Reconciliation, yet they they have represented Coastal Gaslink Pipeline Ltd. in various proceedings including against Chief Howilhkat Freda Huson from the Wet’suwet’en, and winner of the Right Livelihood award, and others in an injunction against a blockade to stop the pipeline from destroying their territory. Fasken is also currently defending Coastal Gaslink (CGL) in a civil suit brought by Sleydo’ and other Gidimt’en land defenders for a series of legal claims including intimidation, nuisance, and intentional infliction of mental distress. As well, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, a firm claiming to be committed to ESG, represented Trans Mountain Pipeline ULC in many aspects of their litigation including bringing injunctions against climate activists in Burnaby fighting expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline on unceded Secwepemc territory.

Sadly, this issue is not unique to Canada. Law firms in the US, UK, and elsewhere also facilitate the work of oil and gas companies to exacerbate the climate crisis. Last year LSCA produced a scorecard ranking the top law firms in the United States according to how much fossil fuels work they have engaged in over a five-year period.  And a 2023 UK report, also supported by LSCA exposed the UK legal industry work for fossil fuel companies. Both lists included numerous firms that also operate in Canada, many of which received failing grades. 

Recognizing our collective challenge of curbing climate change, professionals in other industries have started to realize the moral imperative beyond their bottom line. For example, the Clean Creatives, a collective of over 600 PR and ad agencies, made a pledge to not work with fossil fuel clients. Within the legal profession, groups such as the Lawyers for Climate Justice in Canada have argued that advancing climate justice is a natural extension of the oath that lawyers have sworn, to uphold the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of all persons and that the legal profession—as individuals, law firms, associations, and regulatory bodies—has an ethical obligation to consider what role they should play in responding to the climate crisis.

Law firms are making large, short-term profits from oil and gas companies, but the result is permanent damage to the environment and the economy. Mitigating climate impacts requires climate justice commitments from all professions, and law firms are in an especially powerful position to make a difference. If firms took action, and stopped working for these clients, fossil fuel companies would be compelled to alter their practices, making change possible almost immediately.  

,Read More  Greenpeace Canada  

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