Climate change, or more specifically the many laws, regulations, fees and taxes demanded in the name of catastrophic man-made climate change, is among the most dominant and fiercely debated policy matters of our time. It is inherently politicized, given that its very invocation is in the name of obtaining/imposing a political agenda. As with any high-stakes issue there are fringes at both ends. However, today’s environmental movement is increasingly dominated by a determined and well-funded fringe who are pushing their own center to dubious legal propositions. Among these is a campaign that can only be described as a shakedown operation directed against energy companies.
The Rockefeller Family, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, and trial lawyer- activists such as Matt Pawa have found common cause with environmental organizations to enlist aggressive and ambitious politicians such as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in using their offices to promote the climate agenda. Taking a page from the tactics used to extract billions of dollars from tobacco companies in the 1990s, theirs is a campaign first of vilification of the energy industries that power our society, our safety and resilience, and our freedoms. Those whose innovations make us richer, freer and safer are, in this campaign, a sinister and secretive cabal that conspired to destroy the planet and which must be punished. The shrillness and vilification seem to be inversely related to the strength of the legal foundations behind this campaign.
The campaign has chosen the tobacco settlement in part because that is where several of its principals made their professional names and, some, their livelihoods. That payday, embraced by eager attorneys general, offers a model which they now seek to spin out to other areas, at least in part to obtain a similar (if surely larger) fund, paid for in the end by energy users as an effective tax, which revenues are then distributed to political constituencies. The model may be the same, but the facts are plainly not analogous.
For better or worse, and to one extent or another, large energy companies have for years advocated for “climate” policies; some because it would give them competitive advantage, some hoping to find the least burdensome way to deal with what they view as “inevitable”, and surely some because their leadership embrace the theory or at least out of political caution. Whatever any individual firm’s rationale, companies targeted by the climate legal shakedown have promoted policy responses, and funded research aimed at even further reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a growing and innovative economy produces as a matter of course. This has bought no peace. Indeed, it has encouraged the climate campaigners.
In 2016, New York Attorney General Schneiderman rallied his counterparts from several other states to sue ExxonMobil for conspiring to conceal what the company knew about the possible links between hydrocarbon energy (fossil fuel) consumption and climate change. One of his partner attorneys general sought a decade of records from a free-market think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The latter was dropped almost immediately and is now the subject of a request for sanctions against the AG. When FOIA requests began coming in about this noxious use of law enforcement offices, almost every one of Schneiderman’s parters fled his side.
When Schneiderman’s case began to disintegrate upon not just exposure under FOI laws but when facing (apparently unexpected) pushback, he shifted to a Plan B rationalization for his pursuit of opponents of this blatantly political agenda, organized with political allies, in the face of the agenda failing through the proper democratic process. This was to claim that the company was not being honest with its shareholders in its long-term estimates of the value of untapped petroleum reserves. That case also began to fizzle and Schneiderman and his allies have come under scrutiny for their tactics. Documents posted by Climate Litigation Watch show that this campaign of “climate risk disclosure”, like the rest, originated with overlapping principals in 2012.
The latest line of attack involves municipal and county governments, mostly but no longer exclusively in California, suing Exxon and other energy companies for anticipated damages to public and private property and infrastructure should sea levels rise or storms intensify in the coming years. That is, to pay for their future infrastructure budgets and desires for light rail, high-speed trains and the lie. Law firms such as Hagen Berman have agreed to represent these municipalities on a contingency basis but should they prevail, the will stand to collect monumentally large fees. Their lead attorney, Steven Berman, has just turned up in 2016 emails, obtained under open records laws, as having been in the recruiting effort with Pawa, major donors, and targeted AGs from the early days of enlisting law enforcement into the campaign.
In the meantime, drawn-out court battles will gin up political support and generate even more funds from wealthy backers. As one party recently suggested, these cases not only don’t make sense, they aren’t really about winning. And of course a review of the public record strongly suggests these suits have all along been designed far more with settling in mind, specifically, obtaining the tobacco-style settlement fund for political distribution.
Government Accountability & Oversight (GAO) is a non-profit public interest law firm created by, among others, individuals who have been most instrumental in bringing the public records exposing these AGs’ abuses to light. As this audacious legal assault ramps up still further, entering its third year, GAO through its project Climate Litigation Watch will shine a light on the campaign’s origins, its leadership and its tactics.
Documents will serve as the antidote to the climate campaigners’ ad hominem attacks, time-worn talking points and half-baked scientific analysis. How did this effort come about, with whose impetus, when? Public records show the answers to these questions, and Climate Litigation Watch is now organizing them for easy search and education, a function that has been sorely lacing to date as a way to allow the public to learn for themselves. If you want to understand the campaign behind these investigations and lawsuits, these are the organic documents, providing the background information, and news stories and analyses you might have missed in the legacy media’s enthusiastic promotion of the campaign.
This site will not mediate the debate about the causes and effects of climate change — something that is always underway, always has been, and something societies have always adapted to (the wealthiest societies adapting best; those who, say, burned witches when the climate changed fared less well). This project promotes no policy prescriptions but it will detail the harms of policies pushed by others. But also how these policies came to the forefront of the debate. We are providing a comprehensive resource for journalists, legal and policy analysts, scholars and anyone in the public who wants to understand the facts and issues in this litigation campaign.
Proposals offered in the name of climate change offer increasingly expensive undertakings that will span generations. Downplaying that reality is nonsensical and self-discrediting. Any benefits should be carefully assessed and clearly stated — is the benefit an impact on climate? What impact, approximately, and is it detectable: when, according to whom, under what assumptions? And, of course, at what cost. More important to this site, however, is how these proposals came about, who is demanding them, why, and how did they suddenly become the focus of so much of our policymaking and political apparatus — including now occupying the attentions and awesome power of law enforcement. Particularly in light of the documents housed on Climate Litigation Watch, we believe this represents a misuse and even abuse of the judicial system to advance a political agenda. Some say this is their right, but Climate Litigation Watch will explain how they are wrong. At minimum, the public will have source documents to make their own determination.