OsgoodePD prepares lawyers to tackle legal climate crisis challenges

Two plants with skyscraper behind

Climate change is impossible to ignore, no matter your line of work or area of study. And at York University’s Osgoode Professional Development (OsgoodePD), the curriculum reflects that fact, with professional master of laws (LLM) programs and continuing legal education offerings incorporating the latest climate change legal issues.

Benjamin Richardson broke new ground when he co-taught Osgoode Hall Law School’s first Climate Change Law course for juris doctor students back in 2008, when he was a full-time professor here. Now based at Australia’s University of Tasmania, he recently returned to OsgoodePD as an adjunct professor and was pleased to see how teaching on the topic has evolved.

Benjamin Richardson
Benjamin Richardson

“There is still a place for standalone climate change law courses,” Richardson says, “but there is now a recognition that they need to be supplemented by embedding the climate change issue across the curriculum, because it has become such a pervasive, ubiquitous issue.”

In his Corporate Social Responsibility course, part of OsgoodePD’s Professional LLM in International Business Law, Richardson’s students look at several intersections of climate and commerce, including corporate disclosure and potential greenwashing, developments in the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as how businesses can adapt to global warming for their future survival. 

Considering OsgoodePD’s particular focus on skills development for lawyers and other working professionals in practice, he says it is natural for the curriculum to contain many classes that could be characterized as climate change law courses.

Bruce McCuaig
Bruce McCuaig

“Mainstream Canadian law firms are increasingly demanding climate-literate lawyers who can advise their clients on these issues,” he explains. “It’s not enough just to know what the legislation says. You need a grounding in the economic, political, and ethical issues that affect how businesses and other stakeholders consider climate change.”

As one of three program directors for OsgoodePD’s part-time Professional LLM in Energy and Infrastructure Law, Bruce McCuaig, who has been involved with the program for the past 10 years, has noticed a significant shift in the way climate change is discussed.

“It’s a much more mature theme and topic now,” he says. “The conversation is no longer about the science of climate change or how it’s actually occurring, but more about potential action and execution.”

Jim Whitestone

According to Jim Whitestone, McCuaig’s colleague, it’s no surprise that climate change law courses are on the upswing, considering the past decade has seen some of the field’s more consequential developments.

The ripple effects of the 2015 Paris Agreement – at which almost 200 national governments agreed to ensure the globe warms by no more than two degrees Celsius this century to avoid the worst effects of climate change – are still being felt in particular as signatory nations grapple with the consequences of the net-zero emissions targets they have set for themselves in response.

Whitestone’s own history in the field goes back much further, having served as Ontario’s assistant deputy minister responsible for climate change and environmental policy. In his Climate Change: International Governance, Mitigation and Adaptation course, Whitestone focuses on the Paris Agreement and other international legal and policy frameworks now in place to address the climate crisis.

“We’re updating all the time as standards change and agreements come into place,” he says.

Domestic and international standards also feature heavily in the OsgoodePD Certificate in ESG (environmental, social and governance), Climate Risk and the Law – an intensive, five-day program designed for lawyers and other working professionals in a variety of industries where ESG risk has become a critical business priority.

Didem Light
Didem Light

As a law professor concerned with the movement of people and goods from one place to another, Didem Light says there can be few subjects more directly affected by the physical and legal implications of climate change than the one she teaches in International Transportation Law, a course offered as part of OsgoodePD’s Energy and Infrastructure LLM.  

“Climate change is going to have a very big impact,” says Light, “not just on manufacturers of vessels, cars, buses, trains and other modes of transport, but also the people who use them and the associated infrastructure: things such as ports, airports, train stations, roads and bridges.”

In other courses, the environmental links are not so obvious. At first glance, International Business Law LLM faculty member Emilio Dabed says casual observers may not make the connection between his course on Business and Human Rights and climate change. However, Dabed explores the governance gap that has traditionally allowed transnational corporations to escape effective environmental regulation, thanks to a combination of weak domestic laws and “soft law” – mostly non-binding international guidelines and standards.

Emilio Dabed
Emilio Dabed

In recent years, Dabed says these soft-law frameworks have been hardened by legally binding domestic law initiatives, the adoption of these guidelines by governments and the intervention of courts and tribunals, which have proven increasingly willing to hold transnational companies to account for their voluntary commitments in relation to human rights and the environment.

“What the course tries to convey to students is this strong link between the economic activities of transnational corporations and human rights and climate change, and how to develop a model that somehow reconciles the need for economic growth on the one hand, and the fulfillment of commitments to protect human rights and the environment on the other,” he explains.

Vanisha Sukdeo

Vanisha Sukdeo, who has a forthcoming book looking at the impact of climate change on workers, teaches a Business Associations course in OsgoodePD’s International Business Law LLM that is a popular choice with internationally trained lawyers seeking to requalify in Canada. She welcomes the global perspective her students bring to discussions, as she encourages them to think more deeply about the ideas that are frequently portrayed as solutions to the climate crisis in the western world – the electric vehicle revolution, for example.

“Electric vehicles might be reducing pollution in North America, but a lot of the mining that is needed to produce batteries is taking place on the African continent, generating more pollution there,” she says. “Has that really reduced emissions or just shifted them? That’s something for us to explore.”

As climate change has gone from an abstract concept to a reality of our daily lives, threatening to severely impact our collective future, academic institutions have been tasked with training future agents of change to tackle the threat head-on. Evidently, OsgoodePD has accepted that challenge.