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Looking for the Key to Unlock the Floodgates in Climate Change Litigation

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Stephan Faris’ Conspiracy Theory in the new issue of the Atlantic posits climate change as this era’s Tobacco settlement, profiling the efforts of Steve Susman and Steve Berman.

As scientific evidence accumulates on the destructive impact of carbon-dioxide emissions, a handful of lawyers are beginning to bring suits against the major contributors to climate change. Their arguments, so far, have not been well received; the courts have been understandably reluctant to hold a specific group of defendants responsible for a problem for which everyone on Earth bears some responsibility. Lawsuits in California, Mississippi, and New York have been dismissed by judges who say a ruling would require them to balance the perils of greenhouse gases against the benefits of fossil fuels—something best handled by legislatures.

But Susman and Berman have been intrigued by the possibilities. Both have added various environmental and energy cases to their portfolios over the years, and Susman recently taught a class on climate-change litigation at the University of Houston Law Center. Over time, the two trial lawyers have become convinced that they have the playbook necessary to win big cases against the country’s largest emitters. It’s the same game plan that brought down Big Tobacco. And in Kivalina—where the link between global warming and material damage is strong—they believe they’ve found the perfect challenger.

If there’s a guy worth watching as a student for insight into the business of law, it’s Susman. After reading John Jenkins’ The Litigators, my passing interest is perhaps bordering on obsession. Although I’m skeptical of the merits and/or chances of climate change litigation, the fact that these guys are after it makes me more than a little intrigued, particularly about how exactly they plan to make such a case.

In February, Berman and Susman—along with two attorneys who have previously worked on behalf of the village and an environmental lawyer specializing in global warming—filed suit in federal court against 24 oil, coal, and electric companies, claiming that their emissions are partially responsible for the coastal destruction in Kivalina. More important, the suit also accuses eight of the firms (American Electric Power, BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Southern Company) of conspiring to cover up the threat of man-made climate change, in much the same way the tobacco industry tried to conceal the risks of smoking—by using a series of think tanks and other organizations to falsely sow public doubt in an emerging scientific consensus.

This second charge arguably eliminates the need for a judge to determine how much greenhouse-gas production—from refining fossil fuel and burning it to produce energy—is acceptable. “You’re not asking the court to evaluate the reasonableness of the conduct,” Berman says. “You’re asking a court to evaluate if somebody conspired to lie.” Monetary damages to Kivalina need not be sourced exclusively to the defendants’ emissions; they would derive from bad-faith efforts to prevent the enactment of public measures that might have slowed the warming.

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