Saturday, May 17, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

Also by Stephan Faris, but in next month's Atlantic Monthly.
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.
Given the inability of the Rockefeller heirs to get ExxonMobil to budge, perhaps mobilization of trial lawyers seeking a major bounty is the only way to crack the adamantine corporatist nut?
Berman and Susman aren’t alone in drawing parallels between the actions of the defendants and those of the tobacco industry. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group, has accused Exxon­Mobil of adopting the cigarette manufacturers’ strategy of covertly establishing “front” groups, promoting writers who exaggerate uncertainties in the science, and improperly cultivating ties within the government. The oil company, it says, has “funneled approximately $16 million to carefully chosen organizations that promote disinformation on global warming.”
The prospect of catching folks lying conspiratorially makes this interesting and analogous in many regards to the tobacco industry which was successfully assayed by well prepared trial lawyers.