The Lawyer and the Environmental Crusader

The Lawyer and the Environmental Crusader

Bar & Bench

In this article we get Shravya Reddy, a climate solutions analyst, to talk about what it means to be an environmental advocate, the way in which law school affected her career choices and why you should not be afraid to separate from the herd.

By Shravya Reddy

In this article we get Shravya Reddy, a climate solutions analyst, to talk about what it means to be an environmental advocate, the way in which law school affected her career choices and why you should not be afraid to separate from the herd.

My first reaction when approached by Bar & Bench to write a piece for their Working Title series was to wonder if they’d contacted the right person. Who, me? Why on earth would my professional trajectory be of interest to anyone, and especially to lawyers and law students? After all, I’m the person who introduces myself to people I meet as a “recovering lawyer,” and am usually at pains to impress upon others that I’m the last person they should turn to if they ever need legal advice.

I gathered that Bar & Bench was interested in people who’ve bridged the legal profession and other fields. But the idea of a bridge presupposes that one is rooted in two places at once, and I had to ask myself the question: “Am I still tied to the law in any way or have I made a total departure, making law school completely irrelevant to my career?” During the process of writing this article I answered that question for myself, and I’ll tell you the answer…but not just yet!

First, a quick snapshot of what I do.

I’m currently a Climate Solutions Analyst at The Climate Reality Project in Washington D.C. The organization (formerly known as The Alliance for Climate Protection) is a nonprofit that was founded and continues to be chaired by Nobel Laureate and Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

We are an advocacy group as well as an educational entity, building awareness about the threat of climate change, its impacts, and solutions. Often when people don’t act on an issue, it is simply because they don’t know enough or can’t readily grasp the information out there. Our objective is to make complex climate science more accessible to people, and break down cutting-edge clean energy technology developments to help people understand them better. We do cool stuff like this video to make greenhouse gas emissions more tangible for people or this one that drives home the local impacts of a warmer planet. We work—independently and in coalitions—to support key legislation or policy that could bring us one step closer to solving the climate crisis. We’ve done this in the United States, and we also show our support for beneficial climate law and policy around the world. Additionally, we also spur citizen leadership on climate change by empowering a global corps of individuals who are influential members of their own communities, and by equipping them with the tools to talk about climate science and policy. Mr. Gore and our staff train these volunteers to make compelling presentations and hold workshops in their own spheres of influence, educating their audiences about the defining issue of our time.

My role at The Climate Reality Project—as part of a small team of brilliant and creative colleagues— is to make sure that our messages are based on accurate, credible climate science and that we rely on the best-available data to communicate about clean energy solutions. My day-to-day responsibilities include keeping abreast of the latest studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals or cleantech portals, reviewing them, analyzing the implications, translating the information into user-friendly research briefs or blog posts, and getting the word out to our members, our online audience, our millions of supporters and a wide range of actors. In short, I absorb, distill and disseminate. (Hmm…I wonder where I honed those particular skills? Keep reading for answers!)

Prior to my joining The Climate Reality Project I worked at The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York City for three years. I started my tenure there as a research associate in the Institutional department, assisting NRDC’s President, Executive Director and senior management with research inputs on a broad range of topics, from environmental issues (food and agriculture policy, transportation policy, individual actions to reduce emissions etc.) to organizational matters (strategic planning, Board relations etc.). Within a few years my background as an Indian-trained lawyer and my understanding of India’s environmental, social and political context, coupled with my interest in climate and energy policy, propelled me towards a natural transition within NRDC towards international issues; I joined NRDC’s India Initiative as a policy analyst and—as part of a team—helped initiate a number of climate change mitigation and adaptation projects in India (such as scaling up energy efficiency adoption in buildings in Hyderabad, building public health capacity against the health impacts of climate change in Ahmedabad, strengthening US-India collaboration on clean energy etc.).

The kick-off point for my work in the climate and energy policy space was my Master’s degree from The School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University in New York. My two-year Master of International Affairs (MIA) program allowed me to focus on a subject-matter of my interest, Environmental Policy Studies. Studying at Columbia exposed me to an invaluable peer group of smart, driven, ambitious and inspiring classmates as well as to faculty with exceptional knowledge of the issues I was deeply invested in. While at Columbia I also gained insight into real-world application of climate and energy policy during my internship at The Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative. I owe a great deal to those two years at grad school.

Why did I choose to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy and International Relations instead of a Master’s in Law (LLM)? Because I’d realized by then that what makes me tick is advocacy for broad policy shifts and transformative macro-level changes, as opposed to piecemeal victories. I’d always known, of course, that I wanted to effect change in the environmental sector; since I was a child I’ve cared immensely about the state of our planet and what we’re doing to it. I knew I could only be really, truly happy in life if I work on issues I’m passionate about, in a meaningful way that allows me to feel like I am contributing to solutions instead of perpetuating the problems. I knew I wanted to help move the needle towards a better, safer future.

But before I was ready to begin that journey, and before I could start applying myself to finding solutions to environmental challenges, I felt it was essential for me to supplement my knowledge of the law with a more complete understanding of the earth and its component-systems. I wanted a holistic education that would be the basis of sound, informed judgments in my future career, be it as a campaigner, a writer, as a member of a non-profit organization, as part of a lobbying group, or as part of government. I wanted to understand why some legal approaches to environmental problems work while others don’t. I was also eager to gain insights into the fundamentals of hydrology, geochemistry and biophysics, as it was important to me that I be able to comprehend scientific data and translate that understanding into an effective response. My time at Columbia not only gave me all this, it surpassed my expectations by also affording me exposure to management theory, program-design, cost-benefit analysis, statistics, project-management, environmental economics and much more. In essence, my Master’s in a non-legal field to help me deepen and diversify my education by teaching me all these skills.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the real launching pad for my career – my years in law school at The National University of Juridical Sciences in India. After all, it is my grounding in law that was the foundation for my further studies in public policy. Even though I do not practice law, the skills law school taught me have been valuable assets at grad school and at work. Wading through hundreds of paragraphs of judgments in AIRs to find the main takeaway (ratio) of the decision; poring over thousands of pages of WTO disputes to identify the most important issues involved; familiarizing myself with arguments both for and against a topic and determining the merits and demerits of each type of argument; writing five papers every semester (over 50 in five years!), from outlines through first drafts, second drafts and final papers – a process that got quicker every time and led to steadily better quality writing and analysis; moot courts that taught me how to argue for a position, even if I did not personally agree every time; learning how to compellingly lay out my arguments in a brief and structure my case in a logical, systematic way; improving my public speaking skills through moot courts and gaining confidence in my ability to address rooms full of strangers, or worse, adversaries. The list is long, but if I had to summarize it, I think it wouldn’t be much different than absorb, distill, disseminate!

In addition to developing, honing and deepening professional skills, law school also gave me valuable real-world exposure. Over five years, I did a diverse set of internships that helped in contextual learning. My work with Tarun Bharat Sangh in the desert of Rajasthan and with ATREE in tribal areas of India’s North-Eastern states afforded me unique insight into grassroots environmental initiatives, including community-based natural resource conservation, decentralized accountability systems in environmental management as well as traditional water harvesting and forestry practices. I also gained experience in environmental policy-analysis and formulation as a result of my assignments relating to India’s draft environmental policy of 2004 and identification of the reforms needed in forestry law and policy. My internships at the World Bank and the Department of Indo-European Studies, MDI gave me opportunity for extensive research into food quality issues, national and global food safety standards as well as WTO law and trade-environment conflicts – an area that continues to fascinate me today. While at law school I was also fortunate to gain international experience in environmental advocacy through my internships at Greenpeace, Australia and Earthjustice, USA. At Greenpeace I obtained an insider’s perspective to civil society strategies and campaign management, while at Earthjustice I worked to assist the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in its consideration of an international human right to a healthy environment. Looking back, many of these internships wouldn’t have materialized had it not been for these organizations’ interest in having a law student on board. So law school gave me an edge there too.

Last but not the least, law school shaped the person I’ve turned out to be by bringing me in contact—directly and indirectly— with some exemplary teachers. I received guidance and encouragement from some of the best environmental theorists and practitioners: Dr. Meena Panicker, Dr. B. S. Chimni, Eileen Kaufman, Louise Harmon, Professor Ved Nanda, Professor Martin Wagner, and­—most significant of all­—Professor Armin Rosencranz. Each of them has left an indelible mark on me and helped me move closer to my goals.

Today, even though my bookshelves are not lined with legal textbooks and case laws, and even though I don’t wear robes when I go out to make my case on critical issues, my training as a lawyer remains an intrinsic part of me. If I pause and think about it, I use the skills I gained or strengthened in law school, on a daily basis. Whether I’m reading a scientific study and trying to hone in on the most relevant findings or whether I’m writing a research brief and trying to organize my thoughts in a coherent, systematic manner, I’m drawing on what I did in law school for five straight years. Sure, I like to joke that there’s nothing “lawyerly” about me anymore, but I think my friends will disagree and remind me of my argumentative streak, my verbosity, my urge to always look at both sides of an issue and understand both perspectives, my fierce sense of fairness and my outrage at injustice. So, far from being irrelevant to my career trajectory, deeper reflection tells me that law school was pivotal to my work in public policy and environmental advocacy, and to who I’ve become as a person. (For better or for worse!)

As I wrap this up, I’m also aware that I’m sitting in Washington DC, a city overrun by people who trained as lawyers and even spent a part of their careers as lawyers but who’ve branched out into countless other pursuits. It’s hard to go an hour here without meeting someone else who started out in the legal profession and has used the law as a platform to move on to things he or she is passionate about: conflict resolution, journalism, human rights activism, public health, campaign finance reform….and yes, environmental advocacy. The list is endless. And that’s a reminder to me that law school is much the same: limitless. It can open up as many doors as you want, and can accelerate your success on any chosen path. Just follow your heart, do what’s important and meaningful to you, and don’t be afraid of separating from the herd. Good luck!

Shravya Reddy graduated from NUJS in 2005. She obtained a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), with a concentration on environmental policy including climate change and clean energy. After graduating in 2008 she worked at The Natural Resources Defense Council in New York as a Policy Analyst. Since the Fall of 2011 she has been a Climate Solutions Analyst at The Climate Reality Project. She currently lives and woks in Washington DC. 

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