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It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer

Winner of the Commonwealth Law Prize 2023 and Guyanese environmental lawyer Melinda Janki explains why the climate crisis is a political and legal crisis.

I get a little lost on legal matters, so I attended Jamaica Environment Trust’s (JET) Climate Litigation Seminar on March 15 feeling rather daunted. Would I understand all the legal complexities? Well, I didn’t get all the details sorted out in my head, but the messages came across clearly and forcefully – in particular from Guyanese environmental lawyer Melinda Janki, who laid things out “fair and square” in the keynote speech. I learned a great deal from her, and from the excellent Jamaican panelists, who each provided their perspectives. It all dovetailed into the issue of climate justice – for the Caribbean and our Planet.

It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer

I urge you to watch the proceedings in full on YouTube here. The overall goals of the seminar were to gain insights into the practice of climate litigation; to learn about the new science developed to provide evidence for climate litigation, and to gain an understanding of Jamaica’s current legal framework relating to the environment. We came away with even more food for thought.

By the way, JET’s Legal Officer, Ms. Kourtnie Dixon, provided a Case List – including several cases referred to during the seminar – for use by the many legal professionals and others who attended. If you would like a copy of this list, please contact Ms. Dixon (contact information below).

Ms. Janki was forthright. We opened our eyes and ears. Let’s just call the fossil fuel companies “the Polluters,” she suggested; let’s not call it “carbon emissions,” let’s call it “greenhouse gas pollution.” Because fossil fuel companies are polluters, and “climate change” is pollution – which is destroying the Planet. Moreover, climate change is a symptom of the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the problem, not “climate change,” which all the polluting companies talk about glibly. Think about it! In her presentation, “Climate Change Litigation: Should Caribbean Lawyers Be Getting Ready?” Ms. Janki pointed out that the activities of companies like Exxon Mobil and the concept of climate justice are mutually exclusive. How can they live side by side? One of them has to go, and it has to be fossil fuels.

It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer
Melinda Janki speaking on March 15: Putting fossil fuel companies out of business is “the only way./Emma Lewis

The winner of the Commonwealth Law Prize 2023, Ms. Janki went further to say that it is, in fact, too late for a “just transition” that would ensure a green economy from which all can benefit. We have already gone beyond that! Her presentation was a hard wake-up call.

Ms. Janki won a critical legal victory last May that has somewhat stopped the all-powerful Exxon Mobil (which the Guyanese government in its pocket, according to reports) in its tracks – or at least slowed it right down. The case was brought on behalf of two Guyanese citizens, who asserted that the country’s Environmental Protection Agency had failed to enforce its regulations and had never obtained a guarantee from Exxon Mobil or its subsidiary Esso to cover all its costs in the case of an oil spill. The Guyanese High Court called Esso “disingenuous and deceptive” and the EPA “derelict, pliant, and submissive.” The citizens have now filed an appeal seeking proof of the guarantee ordered by the Court.

At some point in the presentation, our jaws dropped as we found ourselves staring at a map of the potential harm to be done to islands of the western Caribbean, including Jamaica’s south coast, if (or perhaps when) such an oil spill happens. Exxon’s drilling is of the more dangerous deep water kind, like the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico – which was the very first topic I wrote about when I began this blog in 2010 explani

It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer
The alarming map, shows how many islands (including Jamaica) would be affected by an oil spill from the Guyana wells. And this is from Exxon Mobil’s own Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

The seminar was made possible through generous funding from the Open Society Foundations and True Costs Initiative.

It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer
CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust Dr. Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie: “Climate change is not the Great Equaliser, it is the Great Multiplier.”/Emma Lewis

Jamaica Environment Trust highlighted some more aspects of the recent seminar below:

At Jamaica’s inaugural Climate Litigation Seminar on Friday, March 15, 2024, keynote speaker and international lawyer from Guyana, Ms. Melinda Janki, addressed the pressing issue of environmental pollution by the fossil fuel industry and its profound impact on the climate crisis. She emphasized the necessity of legal action to hold polluters accountable and secure compensation for the ensuing damages. Notably, Ms. Janki highlighted the potential devastation to the wider Caribbean region from an oil spill resulting from deep-water drilling by ExxonMobil in Guyanese waters, particularly affecting Jamaica’s south coast.

Ms. Janki was speaking at the seminar which was hosted by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET). Moderated by Mrs. Dionne Jackson Miller, the hybrid session targeted legal professionals and had over 164 participants, mainly legal professionals from both the public and private sectors, alongside environmental scientists, advocates, and academics. The purpose of the seminar was to discuss climate justice, the role of climate litigation, and the evaluation of Jamaica’s legal framework.

Ms. Janki’s presentation underscored the urgency for action, suggesting that Jamaica should address the looming threat highlighted by the oil spill modelling. As a seasoned litigator against the fossil fuel industry, she stressed the pivotal role of climate change litigation in pursuing justice and holding polluters accountable for their actions. She currently leads litigation against the fossil fuel industry and dangerous deep-water drilling offshore Guyana. 

During her presentation, Ms. Janki also said:

During her presentation Ms. Janki also said: “When everyday people and our more than human companions are dying and suffering because of fossil fuels, then it is too late for a just transition.”

Melinda Janki, March 15, 2024

She highlighted that climate change litigation is a tool to be used to seek justice. She said: “Justice is what requires us to think differently and requires us as lawyers to create new legal tools to halt the pollution, to make the polluters pay, to make them pay to remove their pollution, and make them pay compensation for the suffering they have caused. Justice is what we do.”

Melinda Janki, March 15, 2024
It’s not a climate or energy crisis: it’s a political and legal crisis, says Guyanese environmental lawyer
The expressive Professor Michael Taylor of the University of the West Indies’ Climate Studies Group introduced us to the concept of “attribution science,” which he said adds new weight to legal cases and Loss and Damage considerations./Emma Lewis

Reflecting on Ms. Janki’s presentation, Dr. Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, JET’s CEO said: “I’ve never heard the choice laid out so starkly, that continued fossil fuel use is incompatible with justice. Her presentation was a strong reminder of why we need to urgently transition out of the fossil fuel industry.”

Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, March 15, 2024

The panellists, Professor Michael Taylor (Climate Scientist), Mrs. Danielle Andrade Goffe (Attorney-at-Law), and Dr. Lloyd Barnett (Attorney-at-Law), explored topics of attribution science and the role it could play in legal cases and seeking loss and damage funds, environmental justice, the adequacy of existing legal frameworks, the role of climate litigation and the constitutional right to a healthy environment. 

Key takeaways included the imperative to protect vulnerable groups, the need for enhanced legal activism, the need for legislative reform, the significance of attribution science in legal proceedings, and the importance of judiciary education on climate-related matters.

This seminar marks the first instalment of a series tailored for legal professionals and is part of a broader project funded by the Open Societies Foundation (OSF), which received additional support from the True Costs Initiative (TCI).

This contribution was originally published by Petchary.


Picture of Emma Lewis

Emma Lewis

Emma Lewis is a British-Jamaican freelance writer, blogger and advocate for the environment, climate change and human rights issues, living in Kingston for 36 years. She is a retired Public Affairs Specialist and also worked in publishing. She is a graduate of Oxford University, UK.

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