Could a PhD in law save the environment?
When you envision studying a Doctor of Philosophy in law, you may not immediately associate it with combating climate change or saving endangered habitats. But for UQ PhD supervisor Justine Bell-James and her candidate Rose Foster, these motivators underpin their daily research.
Environmental law is an area of urgently increasing importance, where policy can either make or break an individual or an entire organisation’s efforts to address the impacts of climate change, prevent ecosystem destruction or save a species. So, as you can imagine, undertaking environmental law research isn't exactly a walk in the park. But it can be incredibly rewarding.
We spoke with Justine and Rose about what it’s like to complete a PhD in environmental law at UQ and how their findings can make a real and lasting difference to the world we live in.
Learn more about studying a PhD at UQ.
UQ PhD candidate and research assistant at the Centre for Policy Futures
Rose began her PhD at UQ in 2022, after completing her Bachelor of Arts / Laws (Honours). She’s investigating how we can use the law to support restoration of marine environments.
What inspired you to pursue research in the area of environmental law?
I have always been personally interested in combating climate change, and when l studied environmental law with Justine in my fourth year of law school, I knew I wanted to work in that area.
For me the best part of environmental law is that it cuts across so many areas of law, so it’s often about trying to problem-solve a range of complex issues. Particularly in focusing on climate change law, it’s an area that requires a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration so there is a real sense of community and purpose.
Why did you choose to do a PhD and how do you think it’ll benefit you personally and professionally?
I chose to do a PhD because I think it will enable me to draw and build on some of my strengths in research, but also because it will challenge me to develop new skills.
I’ve never ‘led’ a project before, so designing my own research and being able to defend the choices I make in that process is a key part of the PhD, and I think the skills I learn in that will benefit me professionally.
Hopefully this will give me the skills to continue working in and developing my own projects in future, as there is no shortage of issues in climate change law that need solving.
Personally, it is inspiring to work on something that so closely aligns with my personal values and interests. I enjoy the future-focused nature of the work, which means the project has a forward momentum that can hopefully make an (albeit small) impact on how we can address climate change.
What do you hope to do after you complete your PhD?
I’d like to continue working in the climate change law and policy field, since it’s an area that is only going to become more significant across all aspects of society as time goes on.
Ideally, I’ll like to either stay in academia or work for an NGO, as both would provide opportunities to work with other passionate people in trying to promote better environmental outcomes through the legal system.
UQ PhD supervisor and associate professor at the TC Beirne School of Law
Justine is one of Rose’s PhD supervisors and a pioneer in environmental law research here at UQ. Her research focuses on the protection, management and restoration of coastal and marine environments, especially wetlands.
What inspired you to pursue research in the area of environmental law?
I really enjoyed studying environmental law and property law at Law School, and my PhD was at the intersection of those areas. That is part of the reason why coastal wetlands interest me so much, as they exist at the physical intersection of different land ownership and management regimes, which gives rise to tricky legal issues.
What do you enjoy most about being a PhD supervisor?
The early stages of a PhD involve a lot of time trudging through literature and often getting lost in the weeds, but eventually there comes a lightbulb moment where the student realises exactly where they are going and what their argument is – that is a very satisfying process to watch!
What made you decide to be Rose’s supervisor, and what excites you most about her PhD topic?
Rose worked as my research assistant, and she is smart, passionate, diligent and hardworking – the key characteristics you need to succeed as a PhD student!
Rose is working on cutting-edge legal issues around marine restoration that will have real-world implications – I am really excited to see where her work takes her!
What is a PhD in law?
A PhD in law allows you to delve into detailed independent research on a topic of your choosing (or join an existing research project), related to law and legal frameworks. Many PhDs in law examine issues with the way law currently operates and consider how it can be reformed to benefit people and the planet.
Discover other types of law research topics you could explore with a PhD.
What is environmental law?
Environmental law is the body of law that protects the environment by regulating the impact humans have on it.
So, what type of research can you conduct within the area of environmental law? And what kind of impact can it have?
Justine explains that her research focuses on protecting important coastal and marine ecosystems that reduce carbon, safeguard shorelines, provide habitats for fish and purify water – in short, ecosystems we can't live without.
Despite this, she acknowledges that their protection to date has been patchy at best.
“There are few legal frameworks in place to facilitate the active restoration of them,” she says.
“My research aims to look at how to remove and overcome legal and policy barriers to facilitate the effective protection and restoration of these precious ecosystems across the landscape.”
Rose’s PhD takes a similar vein of research, centring on the restoration of marine environments, particularly within the Great Barrier Reef.
“Restoration efforts are critical to the future existence of these environments,” says Rose.
But again, Rose calls out current environmental laws that are not helping to facilitate these restoration efforts. She’s hoping to change that.
“I hope that my research will make it easier for people or organisations who wish to undertake restoration of marine and coastal ecosystems to combat climate change.”
“The 2 main contributions I hope the research will make are, firstly, to help people hoping to undertake restoration by clarifying the current legal requirements.
“Secondly, my research will identify whether legal reform is necessary and indicate possible alternative legal approaches to managing the marine and coastal environment under climate change.”
Why is environmental law research important?
Aside from the more specific reasons mentioned above, Rose explains that environmental law research can help to bridge the gap between law and other disciplines.
"The threat climate change poses across all aspects of society requires that we develop new approaches, and environmental law is one area through which these approaches can be implemented,” she says.
“Legal systems reflect a given society’s values, and currently many of our legal frameworks don’t reflect changing attitudes towards the environment that recognise the need to protect and restore it and to address climate change.”
“It is important that this research is done now, looking at some of the issues that climate change will pose and hopefully figuring out how to manage them ahead of time.”
“As a young person, this challenge feels particularly personal, since the systems we have in place now have the potential to hinder positive actions that will make a huge difference to our future.”
How to get into environmental law research
Breaking into environmental law research might seem daunting, but there are plenty of opportunities to pin down interesting environmental law research topics for your PhD. There's also significant growth in environmental law as an industry, as individuals and organisations work harder to combat climate change. Your research in this area could positively impact many people and places, now and in the future.
The first thing you need to start your PhD in environmental law is a passion for creating change in this sector, which Justine and Rose bring in bucketloads. Aside from the standard processes of narrowing down your research area, finding a supervisor and applying to study a PhD, you also need the perseverance and determination of a researcher, and strong problem-solving skills.
“Environmental problems are challenging – they involve complex legal and policy issues, a diverse range of actors, and difficult political issues,” says Justine.
“A PhD allows you to truly immerse yourself in these issues and engage with them deeply and critically, which is both an incredibly rewarding process, and also a very useful one for developing solutions to these difficult issues.”
It also helps to have studied environmental law during undergrad or postgrad and to have gained experience in a research environment in this area before pursuing a PhD.
“I worked at UQ with Justine as a research assistant during my undergraduate studies,” says Rose.
“My research interests developed from that work and from my work at the Centre of Policy Futures.”
Why study a PhD in environmental law at UQ?
Rose’s motivation for studying her PhD at UQ comes from the many opportunities she has had to collaborate with experts in environmental science, policy and economics.
“I’ve had the chance to meet many researchers across UQ, who are leaders in their fields,” she says.
“That aspect of UQ will enrich my project, particularly in the climate change law field, where it’s so important that work is interdisciplinary.”
Rose also points out that her supervisory team had a big influence on her decision to pursue her Doctor of Philosophy at UQ.
“Justine is one of the top experts in Australia (if not the world) in the field," she says.
“Having worked with her before, I knew she would be a supportive supervisor who would champion my work, while also giving me valuable feedback to improve my writing and legal analysis.”
Together with Associate Professor Pedro Fidelman and Dr Nicki Shumway, who are also a part of her supervisory team, Rose says she has plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration across the university.
“My supervisory team make researching at UQ feel like being part of a community,” she says.
“Justine, Pedro and Nicki have collaborated previously, so it really does feel like a ‘team’, and I feel extremely fortunate to have them.”
Ready to delve into environmental law research and use your legal expertise, passion for research and determination to make a difference in the climate battle today?