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University of Houston Law Center Professor Tracy Hester emphasizes ethical role of lawyers in climate change during United Nations Conference in Germany

Tracy Hester, instructional associate professor and Co-Director of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Center at UHLC

Tracy Hester, instructional associate professor and Co-Director of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Center at UHLC

Oct. 20, 2023 - University of Houston Law Center instructional associate professor Tracy Hester attended the United Nations Bonn Climate Change Conference as one of two representatives of the American Bar Association in Germany.

The discussions in Bonn this summer were a precursor to the UN’s COP28 conference taking place in Dubai during December. The UN holds annual climate conferences under their climate conventions, and the American Bar Association, alongside other national bar associations, has participated in the past several conferences to bring attention to the role of lawyers in combating climate issues.

“We talked about what sort of ethical duties lawyers are going to have to do when they advise clients on issues that are affected by climate change,” Hester said, “as well as what changes in the role of lawyers might take place in light of these issues.”

Hester, who also serves as the Co-Director of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Center at UHLC, highlighted competence as a crucial factor for lawyers to play a positive part in combating climate change.

“Lawyers have an ethical duty to remain current on developments of the law and circumstances that affect the advice that they give to clients,” he said. “They have an obligation to remain informed and current on climate change impacts that might affect the legal advice they offer. If a real estate lawyer is drafting a contract to purchase coastal estate that will be underwater after a certain period due to climate change, that will affect the terms and value of the transaction. Therefore, there will be an ethical duty to make sure the client is aware of the full impact of the advice they are providing.”

Hester also mentioned the ethical considerations that lawyers face when advising clients and whether or not to provide environmentally responsible options.

“There are also some questions about what ethical obligations lawyers might have if they are advising clients in a way that allows them to point out options that would reduce the client’s greenhouse gas emissions while still achieving their goals,” Hester said. “And whether it’s ethical to include that additional dimension to the advice. That’s a highly controversial issue.”

Hester believes that although some advancement has been made with legal activity that combats climate change, the pace of progress must increase.

“We certainly have seen a lot of changes in the law dealing with climate change that are positive,” Hester commented. “We’re starting to see movement on many fronts. However, the current pace is too slow to avoid increasing levels of damage. Most climate scientists agree that if we’re going to attain the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement to keep temperature increases at or below 2 degrees Centigrade, we are not on track for that. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to bend that curve further down, and lawyers will have a big role in that effort.  But we’re not there yet.”

The American Bar Association will participate in UN’s COP28, and Hester hopes to attend this meeting on behalf of the ABA as well.

“Our hope is to discuss our issues again, but with a bigger group,” he said. “So, we are reaching out to many other national bar associations in building that consensus, and we’re trying to reach out to a broader group of younger and more diverse delegates to participate with the ABA.”

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