Fabius speaking at the Yale Law School

Architect of Paris Agreement Discusses Nexus of Law and Climate Change

At a recent conversation hosted by the Yale Environmental Dialogue and Yale Law School, former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius explained the “unprecedented” legal challenges surrounding the climate crisis and called on nations to “urgently” fulfill their obligations set by the Paris Agreement.

“Everybody always talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.”

Stephen Breyer, retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, shared this quote, attributed to fabled author Mark Twain, to describe Laurent Fabius, former Prime Minister of France and president of the country’s Constitutional Council, at an event held September 15 at Yale Law School's Sterling Law Building, co-hosted by the Yale Environmental Dialogue.

“[Fabius] is one of those who has done something,” Breyer told the audience. “When people look back at the pioneers who saved the world, they will look back and say, ‘Thank you for what you have done.’”

The event, “Climate Change Progress: The Path Beyond the Paris Agreement,” covered the progress made since the landmark 2015 climate pact — and lack thereof — and the role law can play in tackling the “unprecedented” challenge of the climate crisis. Fabius, who now heads the highest constitutional authority in France, chaired the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), which established the framework for the Paris Agreement.

“Climate change is an unprecedented issue from two perspectives: it is international and it is intergenerational,” Fabius said. To handle the global nature of climate change, he said, the principles laid out in the Paris Agreement must be incorporated within domestic law.

Critics believe judges overreach their power when ruling in [climate] cases, but I believe the opposite. Judges are not rewriting the law; they are making sure the law is informed.”

Laurent Fabius Former Prime Minister of France

Up to this point, “implementation has not been satisfactory," Fabius said. Many countries have opposed efforts to curb the effects of climate change due to the belief that many of the efforts are “too ambitious,” he said. Fabius also referred to the decision by former President Donald Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, which he said has weakened efforts for global cooperation on climate action.

“That decision has not had a major impact on the United States,” Fabius said, citing the work being done on climate change by individuals and organizations and corporations. “But it has provided incentive for other countries to do less.

“All of us, together, must do more and do it more urgently.”

Recent events across the world have highlighted the need for more urgent climate action, Fabius said. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that efforts to limit atmospheric warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius have thus far been unsuccessful, and catastrophic droughts, flooding and wildfires continue unabated. The conflict in Ukraine has disrupted global supply chains, emphasizing the need to shift away from fossil fuels and toward energy independence.

“All experts draw the same conclusions; the link between climate change and CO2 emissions is more than established,” Fabius said. “The tipping points have been reached — not in 10 years, not in 30 years — now.”

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The most important course of action, Fabius said, is strengthening legal norms against climate change. Because the Paris Agreement was ratified by nearly every country in the world, the framework for appropriate climate action is already in place, he said. The remaining question is about implementation — by legal precedent, if necessary.

“There is growing momentum,” Fabius said, citing more than 1,500 environmental cases in recent years against governments and corporations. “Critics believe judges overreach their power when ruling in these cases, but I believe the opposite. Judges are not rewriting the law; they are making sure the law is informed.”

“With so many major law evolutions, judges’ rulings will be crucial. These complexities mean judges will need to be more familiar with the issues, with proper training and understanding. From my own experience, this is not an obstacle for our capacity to make decisions.”

In a back-and-forth discussion, Breyer pushed back on Fabius’ comments about the role of the court system, relating the challenges associated with each country’s unique government structure. “In the U.S., Congress makes the law,” Breyer said. “It’s not that judges hate the environment. We are concerned with the structure of the American government when it comes to decision-making and how it can greatly affect legal precedent.”

Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice at Yale School of the Environment with a joint appointment at the School of Law, moderated the discussion. He said the conversation revealed that despite the limitations in enforcing the Paris Agreement, it is still the defining structure for global progress.

“It guides both domestic and international actions and provides a metric for assessing the recent federal climate change legislation,” Torres said. “What President Fabius exemplifies is the importance of persistence. It is the only way we will move forward.”

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