When four students taking Lisa Benjamin’s Environmental Law II course were given their first assignment — to write a paper to submit to an international writing contest — they had no inkling they’d win. Their supervisor was optimistic, however. “I thought they had a really good chance after I read it,” says Benjamin, who is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the law school. “I was ecstatic when I heard they won!”
Third-year law students Emma Doucette and Taya Arnold, along with second years Jacqueline Hartigan and Chelsea Packman, started working on the 1,000-word paper one month before the March 1 deadline. The topic: recommendations the Human Rights Commission of the Philippines should make to the Government of the Philippines as a result of its Carbon Majors Inquiry.
There was minimal direction in the submission criteria, which initially the students found daunting. “Then Lisa told us that we could shape the paper the way we wanted to,” says Doucette, “so that’s what we did.” They each chose a section: domestic initiatives (Doucette), compensation schemes (Hartigan), ending fossil fuel extraction (Arnold), and transparency (Packman)—then took turns working on the other sections.
“The first draft was very condensed, because we weren’t sure if citations were included in the word count,” says Doucette. “They weren’t, so we were able to flesh out the second draft a bit, which improved the flow. It was challenging to say what we needed to say in just 1,000 words.”
Highlighting the voice of the ‘climate vulnerable’
The overarching issue is that the majority of countries in the Global South generate very few fossil fuel emissions, but they are extremely vulnerable to climate-induced impacts as a result of global emissions. For example, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes to more extreme weather events such as typhoons.
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest ever recorded, causing over 6,000 deaths in the Philippines. The country’s Human Rights Commission’s investigation looks at the relationship between the emissions of carbon-major corporations and the devastating impacts of extreme events such as Typhoon Haiyan.
“The contest is another way to raise awareness about climate change in the Global South,” says Doucette. “It was aimed at law school students — people who would care and listen and have something to say about what could be done.”
The contest was put on by the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change in the Philippines, in partnership with the Department of Law and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Stirling in Scotland. It was meant to support the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines in drafting its recommendations.
“This investigation is innovative, and there are hearings being held around the world,” says Benjamin, who attended one in New York City last September. “The approach the Philippines is taking highlights the voice of the climate vulnerable and makes a direct connection between climate harms and industrial actors such as fossil fuel corporations. The students understand that developing countries do not have the same capacity as developed counties and yet are extremely vulnerable, so they looked at existing barriers in the law to achieving climate justice, and made recommendations which try to work around those barriers.”
The students were surprised—and delighted—when they learned they had won. “We didn’t expect to win because we had no idea how many people were submitting, and there’s no way of judging whether you’ve done a good job, although we felt good when we finished it,” says Doucette. In the spirit of the law school’s Weldon Tradition, they’re planning to donate the prize money to a cause in the Global South that “seems fitting” with the paper’s topic.
It will also be a thrill for the students to see their work in Ratio. “The LSE has an excellent reputation, so to be associated with them is incredible,” says Doucette. “Even more than that, though, if the Philippine government adopts any of our recommendations, we’d feel honoured.”
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