The Top Carbon Cutters - number 5 Martijn Wilder

In conjunction with Crikey's Power Index, Climate Spectator will be providing a run down on the top 5 most powerful people involved in transforming Australia into a low carbon economy. We start with Martijn Wilder, the lawyer in charge of Baker and McKenzie's climate practice.

Crikey, with the support of Climate Spectator, are presenting a series that attempts to pin down the top 10 people driving Australia’s efforts to create a low-carbon economy. You can read numbers 10 to 6 in our “carbon cutters” list here http://www.crikey.com.au/the-power-index/. Climate Spectator, in conjunction with Crikey will be counting down from number 5 over the coming week, starting today with climate lawyer Martijn Wilder at #5..

The British firm Chambers and Partners, which produces respected legal rankings, rates Australian Martijn Wilder the globe’s number one climate change lawyer. .  He heads up legal behemoth Baker and McKenzie’s global environmental division, overseeing 50 offices from his Sydney HQ. When the West African nation of Gabon wanted an environmental code last year he flew to Paris and helped write it.

On climate change, 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 reign 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 insomuch as the law fails the environment, it’s the fault of politicians who draft the law; it’s 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. He wants a greater emphasis on and respect for science, and he wants a national science advisory panel to be given real clout (the government’s previous chief scientist Penny Sackett quit after meeting the PM just once in two years).  

“Why is there this sudden obsession with non-expert advice?” Wilder asked Crikey over the phone from Sydney. “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.”

This comment is a window on how Wilder operates. He’s no dry and dusty black-letter lawyer, serving the client of the day. He borders on advocacy; he thinks climate change is a very serious problem, and he unequivocally backs carbon pricing.

How did he land in climate?

As an economics student he got into Antarctic history (he visited in 2009), finished a Cambridge Masters in international environmental law in 1994, and switched to the climate area in the late 90s because it “was becoming one of the key international environmental issues”. In 1999, together with Cambridge friend James Cameron, he set up Baker and McKenzie’s climate practice. That involves advising companies, governments and international agencies on legal issues around climate change and carbon pricing. 

In addition to running a busy legal practice, he seems to pop-up all over the place. He’s the chair of the government’s Low Carbon Australia, soon to merge with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation where he’ll join the Board. He chairs the NSW Government's Climate Change Council, although it’s less active under the Coalition. He lectures at the ANU, is on the board of WWF, and is involved in the Climate Institute. He once even helped place a melting polar bear sculpture at Sydney’s town hall to highlight global warming. Wilder is everywhere at once.

“I work pretty hard,” Wilder concludes.

Leading carbon farmer Andrew Grant puts it differently: “he’s the world’s most manic multi-tasker.” Grant also describes Wilder, affectionately, 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 his fingerprints extend across Australian law, such as the first mandatory emissions trading scheme – NSW’s GGAS scheme; and he advised federal frontbencher Tony Burke on funding for reserves and Caring for our Country. He retains the ear of ministers.

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. Unlike many legal leaders, he has been involved in writing the law –creating a new class of property right in carbon rights - not just enforcing it. But according to Wilder, climate law has ups and downs; “it is a long term game plan, nothing is going to happen fast”.

Wilder’s view of climate change is classically neo-liberal, in a way that Tony Abbott has so far not embraced. Wilder sees climate change as “the classic market failure”; voluntary action has failed because incumbent economic heavyweights do not 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”. Policy-makers provide the top-down legal framework, then the private sector finds the cheapest way to adapt, bottom-up.