Global warming's Erin Brockovich?

Who do power company lawyers fear? Try Matthew Pawa.


Andrew Leonard
April 11, 2006 9:56PM (UTC)

How the World Works has had a lot of fun bashing Steve Milloy, the free-market "activist" who has devoted his life to ensuring that corporations are unhindered in their efforts to make our planet uninhabitable by humans. For anyone who believes in pushing for corporate social responsibility, Milloy is the enemy.

But who, we wonder, is Milloy's counterpart? Who do the lawyers at ExxonMobil gnash their teeth at in the middle of the night? Here's a nomination: Matthew Pawa, a Massachusetts litigator who has made a career out of representing the interests of the environmental movement.

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I learned about Pawa today, courtesy of an Energy Bulletin link to the transcript of a television interview with him discussing one of his current cases. Pawa is representing two environmental groups who are plaintiffs in a suit against five American electric utilities. The aim of the lawsuit is to get a judge to mandate emissions caps on the five companies, who, according to the lawsuit, pump out about 10 percent of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

The suit claimed that the greenhouse gas emissions of the utilities represented a "public nuisance" similar to other forms of air pollution. But last September, a judge dismissed the suit, declaring that the problem of global warming was a "political" question that had to be decided by Congress and/or the president, not the courts. Pawa and his fellow lawyers, representing three environmental groups and eight states, have appealed the ruling.

As anyone who has been reading this blog for the last month knows, How the World Works is very interested in tracking the question of legal liability for climate change, because ultimately, it is the belief here that if weather disruptions and rising temperature wreak increasing havoc, the financial implications will be too great for insurance companies and courts to ignore, whether or not Congress or the president finally decides to authorize serious action. At present, courts are ducking the issue, but that may not always be possible.

And when judgment day finally arrives, there may be some serious bills to pay. Four years ago, Pawa helped represent a group of environmental organizations that were being sued by the Western Fuels Association over an ad in the New York Times that connected possible health problems from global warming to the burning of fossil fuels. At the time, Frederick Palmer, the CEO of Western Fuels Association, a coal-purchasing cooperative and advocacy group based in Westminster, Colo., clearly believed that the best defense against environmental activism (PDF) was a good offense. In its lawsuit, Western Fuels Association alleged "commercial defamation."

Why? Because, according to the suit, global warming isn't necessarily a bad thing. The complaint stated that "[S]cientific observations reveal that the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on our environment is both modest and benign."

That complaint was also dismissed. But the story may not end there. If the courts ever do decide that companies that emit greenhouse gases are liable for damages associated with global warming, then they may end up taking a hard look at those who fought most fiercely against taking any responsibility. As the Corporate Legal Times quoted one environmental lawyer saying, in reference to the Western Fuels Associaton lawsuit, one could argue that a company running a counter-propaganda campaign, or helping to finance one could also be liable for damages.

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Pawa and company may not win their appeal. Congress may dilly-dally for years more before taking any significant action. Global warming may, at this point, be unstoppable. But a reckoning will come.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works

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