Mar 14, 2013

The Power Index: carbon cutters, Martijn Wilder at #5

Martijn Wilder is the world's top climate lawyer by some accounts. So does he think the law is letting down the environment when it comes to global warming? And if it is, who's to blame? Read about the lawyer whose management skills and networking have taken him to the top of Australia's low-carbon economy.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

"The law [mass noun]: the system of rules which a particular country or community recognises as regulating the actions of its members" (Oxford Dictionary).

So whose interests does this "system of rules" serve when it comes to the environment versus economic development? Martijn Wilder should know. British firm Chambers and Partners, which produces respected legal rankings, rates him the world's No. 1 climate change lawyer. He heads up legal behemoth Baker and McKenzie's global environmental division, overseeing 50 offices from his Sydney HQ. When Gabon wanted an environmental code last year, Wilder flew to Paris and helped write it. It's a live question whether the law acts to protect the environment or has been co-opted by wealthy propertied interests to serve their ends. Can legal avenues be relied upon to rein in global warming? Those who've tried (and failed) to challenge new coal mines, or seen tighter vehicle emissions standards bogged down in court, might wonder. Wilder digs in firmly behind his chosen field. "In many ways, law is the only tool to get an outcome in the environmental space," Wilders told The Power Index. "Without law, there’s no protection." Doesn't it sometimes seem that industry wields mighty structural power over climate law? "Yes and no," Wilder said after a pause. "The issue is to what extent the law is, in its development, compromised." His thinks that when the law fails the environment, it's the fault of politicians who draft the law, not a problem with law as an institution, or with costs, judicial appointment or standing (the right to take out legal action). And Wilder wants politicians to lift their game by placing more value on science, via a national science advisory panel with real clout (the government's chief scientist Penny Sackett quit after meeting the PM just once in two years).
"It's one thing for people to voice their opinion, it’s another for governments to be swayed in decision-making by Andrew Bolt."
"Why is there this sudden obsession with non-expert advice?" Wilder asked over the phone from Sydney (he was walking to collect his kids from school). "There seems to be a wave of hysteria with respect to a range of environmental issues at the moment … It's one thing for people to voice their opinion, it's another for governments to be swayed in decision-making by Andrew Bolt." It's a window into how Wilder operates. He's no dry and dusty black-letter lawyer. He borders on advocacy; he thinks climate change is a serious problem, and he unequivocally backs carbon pricing. He publicly backs gay marriage, too. Here's something you need to know about Martijn Wilder: it's pronounced "Mar-tain". His family is part-Dutch and he was born here. As an economics student he got into Antarctic history (he visited in 2009), finished a Cambridge master's degree in international environmental law and switched to the climate area in the late '90s. In 1999, with Cambridge friend James Cameron, he set up Baker and McKenzie's climate practice, which advises companies, governments and international agencies on legal issues around climate change and carbon pricing. He's the chairperson of the government's Low Carbon Australia initiative, which is merging with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (he's joined the CEFC board), so he helps dole out green loans and grants to companies. He chairs the NSW government's Climate Change Council, although it's less active under the Coalition. He lectures at Australian National University, is on the WWF board, and is involved in the Climate Institute. And don't forget Gabon (the oil-rich African nation wanted a legal code to steer it towards sustainable development). "I work pretty hard," Wilder admitted. Carbon farmer Andrew Grant puts it differently: "He's the world's most manic multi-tasker." Grant affectionately describes him as "the rock star of climate change … He's the single most influential climate lawyer in the world" (Wilder says "I curl in my grave" at the rock star reference). Wilder's influence is particularly strong internationally, but he's worked on Australian law -- like the NSW GGAS scheme -- and advised ministers (and retains their ear). Industry analyst Rob Fowler says good management is key to Wilder's success; he knows how to attract strong people to a team, is plugged into an influential Baker and McKenzie network, and loves a laugh. Wilder is generous with his time with The Power Index, and gets so excited about some topics that his words trip over each other (Grant describes him as "a big kid"). He's not available for interview one week because he's walking Tasmania's Overland Track. He once helped place a melting polar bear sculpture made of ice at Sydney's Town Hall to highlight global warming. Wilder is everywhere at once. Despite working in a doom-and-gloom field, Wilder seems to mainly see opportunities and solutions, and is frustrated with those who don't: "I'm quite an optimistic person -- you've just got to keep pushing ahead." While many areas of law groan with centuries of precedent, climate law is relatively new. Wilder, who is 45, got into a greenfields area, moved to the top and stayed there. He has been involved in writing the law -- like creating a new class of property right in carbon rights -- not just enforcing it. He says he's creative and entrepreneurial. Climate law has ups and downs: "It is a long-term game plan, nothing is going to happen fast." His game plan does not involve a tilt at politics, but will he switch to full-time conservation advocacy? The Climate Institute's John Connor successfully turned a legal background into lobbying. Wilder's view of climate change is classically neo-liberal, in a way Tony Abbott has not embraced. Wilder sees climate change as "the classic market failure"; voluntary action has failed because incumbent economic heavyweights don't want to reduce environmental damage, so laws are required to force companies to reduce emissions. The twin arms of policy and law create an economic driver to reduce pollution -- what Wilder calls "creating a market by statute". Policymakers provide the top-down legal framework, then the private sector finds the cheapest response, bottom-up. Some might argue a) climate change is the market failure that proves the undoing of the "endless growth" neo-liberal project, or b) this market failure is being fixed way too late. But critics of Wilder's approach can always take his advice on how to fix a problem: get involved in politics and write the laws you think are needed. Don't blame the lawyers.

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6 thoughts on “The Power Index: carbon cutters, Martijn Wilder at #5

  1. Roger Clifton

    When a lawyer asks, “what can I do about climate change?”, one answer is “help us prepare prosecutions for Crimes against the Environment”.

    That the legislation has yet to be framed and endorsed by the nations of the UN should not stop a lawyer. The Nuremburg Trials of 1946/7 used evidence that predated the freshly endorsed Crimes against Humanity.

  2. Mark Duffett

    “There seems to be a wave of hysteria with respect to a range of environmental issues at the moment … It’s one thing for people to voice their opinion, it’s another for governments to be swayed in decision-making by Andrew Bolt.”

    Non-expert environmental hysteria is certainly rampant at present, but Bolt is hardly the prime culprit. Environmental activism on supertrawlers, coal seam gas, Tarkine and several other areas is backed by just as little science as Bolt’s position on climate.

  3. Mike Flanagan

    Thanks Cathy Alexander for this informative article and I must commend the series.
    I do hope these ‘knights’ of industry give some impetus to other business groups and leaders to face up to the reality of the enormous challenges Climate Change presents.
    Without the active paricipation of the ‘movers and shakers’ as well as the scientists, in attending to the challenges, we are going to bequeth both the current and future generations an enormous economic and social debt.

  4. Scott

    I’m pretty sure the Nuremberg trials were based on earlier laws of war conventions like the hague convention.
    Regardless, there is already enough regulation around the environment, especially in developed countries like Australia.You can’t cut down a tree these days without signing away your first born. It’s only in the developing world that you can still pollute at will.

  5. bjb

    It’s a bit rich for Mr Wilder to blame politicians for bad environmental law. I’d be 100% sure that the vast majority of his firms clients are big end of town companies who invariably use firms like Baker and McKenzie to lobby government to get laws drafted in their favour.

  6. z craig

    I have recently done a post graduate management course on corporate sustainability. No real surprise to find that sustainability (environmental, social & financial) require multiple paradigm shifts within both government, but particularly in business thinkging, and schooling.

    The main principles of this new area are
    – the need to recognise damage to the environment;
    – change management from status quo to sustainability;
    – adaption mechanisms for business means new skills in HR, environmental & social management;
    – the best firms presently tend to be lean and small;
    – Top 500 ASX firms now starting to do sustainability reporting, which should filter down through most firms over time

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