Can lawyers help stop global warming?


High-flying tort lawyers have always had a funny relationship to the environment. Let’s be honest, the best plaintiff attorneys tend not to be crunchy-granola, cabin-in-the-woods kind of guys; some of us like our boats and, if we’re hard-working enough and successful enough, our private jets too much to be completely carbon neutral, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, when a tort lawyer is on the job, he or she is doing a lot more to clean up the American environment than you probably realize. Most of us look to our elected officials to write laws and craft regulations that will stop large corporations from polluting the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. But that doesn’t really work very well in the 21st Century, when the almighty dollar has become the major ingredient of our political system and when politicians can be bought.

Instead, average folks who’ve been dumped on and poisoned by the big oil companies or chemical firms can only turn to the court system, and to a trial lawyer, to get the justice they deserve. It is only through tort law that we’ve been able to make the cost of doing bad more than the cost of doing good for America’s big corporations.

But can lawyers be an even broader force for social good? This is something I’ve contemplated a lot recently as I worked on my book, Crude Justice, which is about my life so far doing battle with Big Oil and which will be published early next year by BenBella Books. Are there complicated big environmental issues — such as climate change — in which the law can be a force for good beyond traditional tort cases? One top lawyers’ group says the answer is definitely “yes“:

 An increasing number of extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on the world’s most vulnerable people and bulldozing economies, but climate laws are woefully inadequate to deal with human rights, says a groundbreaking new report by an influential lawyers’ group.

The group also calls for the creation of an international court on the environment that would deal with climate change disputes, much like the United Nation’s International Court of Justice.

The 240-page report has been put together by the International Bar Association, which comprises 200 bar associations worldwide and has more than 55,000 members. It is the first time that a legal organization of this size has studied climate justice and the role of human rights law in addressing climate challenge.

The report was released Monday.

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times,” said David Estrin, co-chair of the panel that put the report together. “And it is the one that we are most inadequately prepared for.”

I could not agree more that we need new approaches to deal with the threat that global warming poses to our future. Legislative action, especially here in the gridlocked United States but also in major greenhouse-gas polluters like China and India, has fallen short, and international cooperation has been limited. I’ve seen first-hand how the law has brought environmental justice to American  communities, and maybe the rule of law can bring some rational solutions to global warming. God knows we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing so far.

Learn more about the proposal for an international court on climate change from the Toronto Star:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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