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The climate change lawyer: An interview with Wynne Lawrence

Cyde & Co senior associate Wynne Lawrence is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she an experienced martial arts practitioner, she is also a lawyer working at the cutting edge of arguably the most pressing issue facing the world today: climate change.

“A few years ago climate change practices within law were undoubtedly more niche,” says Lawrence, who has just been awarded a black belt in Aikido. “But now, the recognition that climate change is a business risk means that climate change law and practice now expand beyond environmental law and regulation – they touch on areas like financial services, asset finance, pensions, tax, trade, to name just a few. This means that if you’re an undergraduate who wants to pursue a career in the law at the same time as helping to make a difference to climate change, there are all kinds of opportunities. Climate change isn’t a problem that’s going away any time soon.”

Canada-born Lawrence had long been concerned about climate change, but it was after a speech in 2015 by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, that she decided to focus her legal practice on the myriad of issues that are a consequence of global warming.

“Carney’s speech was to the insurance market Lloyd’s of London, and one of the key things he highlighted was the severe threat posed by climate change to the financial sector. With this in mind, I became a founding member of Clyde & Co’s Climate Change Risk practice. We began to build our knowledge around the potential issues, particularity in the insurance sector, which for years has been one of firm’s biggest strengths.”

Since then, Clyde & Co’s cross-practice climate risk and resilience group, headed up by partner Nigel Brook, has grown exponentially. As Lawrence puts it: “It’s not just environmental law. The work we do spans sectors including insurance & reinsurance, shipping, aviation, tech, energy & natural resources, global trade and litigation. It’s very hard to think of an area of life that isn’t potentially affected by climate change risks.”

Lawrence first became passionate about climate change during her BA in International Relations at the University of Toronto. “Climate change was part of my BA, and my studies then stood me in good stead,” she says. “There was a lot of focus on the intersection of law and politics.”

Graduating from Toronto in 2006, Lawrence relocated to London to complete a Masters. Then came her Graduate Diploma in Law which was sponsored by Clyde & Co. She was attracted to the firm because of its strong international presence, and since joining as a trainee in 2012, Lawrence, who speaks French and Spanish, has worked in the firm’s offices in Toronto, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Guildford and Hong Kong.

With even the likes of former Top Gear presenter and professional petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson now accepting that climate change is, as Lawrence puts it, “a clear and present danger”, Lawrence agrees that the argument has largely been won. “There’s now a pervasive, general recognition in the business community that climate change exists, and amounts to a business risk,” she says. But, she cautions, “there are still big challenges that require big solutions. Climate change necessitates dynamic and creative thinking to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

Lawrence and Clyde & Co are certainly playing their part, even if there is resistance in some quarters to taking action to address those challenges. A glance at a recent Clyde & Co report, Climate change: Liability risks, a rising tide of litigation, further bolsters those who feel that climate change is undeniable: it reveals that more than 1,200 climate change cases have been filed in more than 30 jurisdictions to date. The first wave of legal action, says Lawrence, is targeted mainly at governments and municipalities over their alleged failure to comply with their international environmental commitments.

The upturn in litigation is also partly in response to the way the courts, particularly in the US, are now looking at environmental issues as a legal problem as opposed to a political one, according to Lawrence. “This, coupled with a greater understanding of climate risk through advancements in science, has seen more and more cases come before the courts,” she explains.

Lawrence is integrally involved in Clyde & Co’s Resilience initiative, a mine of information and advice on risk management and regulatory issues caused by climate change. There’s a powerful argument for its papers, which range from a report on threats and challenges at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to those focusing on climate-related financial disclosure and parametric solutions for wildfire risks, being required reading for everyone interested in climate change.

One thing is for sure: anyone thinking of a career at Clyde & Co would do well to check out the Resilience hub. Meanwhile, Lawrence has encouraging words for undergraduates who share her passion: “As much as it is a challenging time, it is also an exciting opportunity to rise to the challenge. Climate change has thrown up all manner of problems but it’s not too late. Having the opportunity to work in this area is fantastic. ”

 

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Pioneers and Innovators Special, read the rest of it online now.