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The Climate Liability Road Trip

The Manufacturers’ Accountability Project released the fourth chapter of Beyond the Courtroom: A Closer Look at Climate Litigation in the United States, its report examining the highly coordinated network of foundations, activists and attorneys who are waging a multi-front and baseless litigation campaign in the United States against energy manufacturers. Here are some key excerpts from chapter four, Road Trip—The Active Recruitment of Climate Liability Lawsuits:

The liability campaign’s active recruitment of governments for the litigation

Chapter Four reveals how lawyers have been actively selling baseless litigation over climate change, telling local governments that they and their funders will pay for the litigation in its entirety in exchange for a contingency fee if the litigation is successful. The chapter then details how two legal teams and their partisans have been pitching local governments.

  • “Matt Pawa was a veteran of the first round of climate change lawsuits, and, later joined Steve Berman to start pitching the lawsuits together … Pawa eventually became a partner of Berman’s firm, Hagens Berman, which initiated climate lawsuits on behalf of King County, New York City, San Francisco and Oakland between September 2017 and May 2018.”
  • Vic Sher of Sher Edling has “spent the last few years approaching local and state governments, trying to convince municipalities, attorneys general and even professional associations to bring lawsuits against energy manufacturers. He has also worked in concert with other groups like EarthRights International and individuals like Ann Carlson, co-director of UCLA’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, who has disclosed that she is providing consulting services on these cases.”

The Florida case study

The report uses plaintiffs’ attorneys’ attempt to recruit several Florida municipalities as a case study to show the anatomy of the climate litigation sales pitch, including their “hiring lobbyists, posting billboards and deploying social media advertising.”

  • Fort Lauderdale: “In October 2018, EarthRights International (ERI) approached the City Commission of Fort Lauderdale, Florida in an attempt to convince the city to bring a climate lawsuit against manufacturers.” ERI and Sher Edling met with Fort Lauderdale’s city attorney, but in May 2019, the city attorney said the city had “no intention of suing energy manufacturers over climate change.”
  • Miami Beach: “[I]n February 2018, Chuck Savitt, Sher Edling’s Director of Strategic Relationships, began reaching out to public officials in Miami Beach to discuss climate liability litigation.” Yet Savitt appeared wary of his correspondence with Miami Beach officials becoming public. “For example, he wrote to one city official, saying, ‘[g]iven state law, let’s talk rather than me send you anything.’ In another email, he wrote, ‘Given public records laws it is much better for us to talk on the phone.’ … This episode provides a window into how these lawyers are working to persuade state and local governments into filing climate lawsuits against energy manufacturers.” Miami Beach’s city attorney cautioned his colleagues not to meet with Savitt if he was not registered as a lobbyist in their jurisdiction.
  • Miami: Miami was subject to a public relations campaign spearheaded by the Center for Climate Integrity and the Miami Climate Alliance that encouraged the city to sue manufacturers for climate change. This effort also included groups like the Miami Chapter of the Sierra Club,, Union of Concerned Scientists and US Climate Action Network.

Other Examples of the Climate Liability Recruitment Campaign

The report also details how “the lawyers, activists, public relations professionals, university faculty and others involved in the climate liability campaign have tried to use their connections to prompt additional cases.”

  • Honolulu: Allies of Sher Edling at the University of Hawai’i’s Environmental Law Program hosted an event to promote the litigation and to court Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell in advance of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting in Honolulu. Caldwell, who spoke at the event, supported the Conference of Mayors’ resolution on climate litigation and “[a]t a July 2019 forum held by the U.S. Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, he urged them not to preempt the ability of municipalities to file these lawsuits.”
  • Washington, D.C.: The report also discusses efforts by Pawa to recruit Washington, D.C., for the litigation through briefings he did for attorneys general. In February 2019, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine “solicited outside counsel to work on a contingency-fee basis to support an ‘investigation and potential litigation against ExxonMobil… in connection with Exxon’s statements or omissions about the effects of its fossil fuel products on climate change.’ One of the firms Racine’s office sent this RFP to was Hagens Berman, Pawa’s current firm.”
  • Seattle: In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan was already well-connected to climate litigation activists. “In 2016, while working for the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, Durkan represented, whose co-founders, Bill McKibben and Jamie Henn, have repeatedly endorsed the municipal public nuisance climate lawsuits against energy manufacturers. It, therefore, was not surprising that soon after Durkan’s election, City Attorney Peter Holmes sent a letter to her and City Council President Bruce Harrell describing his investigation into potential legal avenues for suing energy manufacturers over climate change.”

Chapter Four of this report concludes that “it has become clear that climate litigation is the result of a highly orchestrated campaign of lawyers, activists, academics and public relations firms working hard to recruit communities to bring the litigation.” Chapters One, Two and Three are available here.