Climate change activists have found their next big target: mega-law firms

climate protest
Climate activists participate in an Extinction Rebellion protest in New York, New York, October 10, 2019.
  • Climate groups are starting to hold law firms accountable for their huge role in supporting the fossil fuel industry.
  • This is a smart move, and the latest in a line of new fronts in the climate battle targeting the industries the fossil fuel industry needs for survival.
  • In the very near future we are going to see the first law firms distance themselves from fossil fuel companies.
  • Adam McGibbon is a climate campaigner and journalist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Lionel Hutz, the incompetent attorney from "The Simpson's" memorably asked, 'can you imagine a world without lawyers?' Hutz then involuntarily imagines a utopian scene that makes him shudder.

Despite being routinely derided in popular culture and lambasted for high-profile roles in political fights, lawyers as a group have largely escaped scrutiny for their huge, hidden role in the climate crisis — until now.

This month, a new environmental group, Law Students For Climate Accountability, a growing group with members across many of the top law schools in the United States, launched a "climate scorecard," ranking the Vault 100 list of top law firms in the United State in terms of their accountability for the climate crisis. 

The student-led group says that the legal profession as a whole is exacerbating the climate crisis in three major ways:

  1. Facilitating the legal transactions that are necessary for the fossil fuel industry to function. 
  2. Litigating in favour of fossil fuel companies in court.
  3. Lobbying the government on behalf of the big polluters. 

On the first point alone, Law Students For Climate Accountability say that the Vault 100 law firms collectively raked in $1.3 trillion dollars from fossil fuel-related transactions from 2015 to 2019. 

For instance, the group also highlighted the case Rhode Island vs Chevron Corporation, where the Rhode Island state government brought suit to hold fossil fuel companies liable for climate change damages. No Vault 100 firms supported Rhode Island, but 11 of them supported the fossil fuel companies. 

Meanwhile, Vault 100 firms lobby daily to weaken environmental legislation and head off attempts to control pollution at the behest of fossil fuel giants. The Vault 100 firms collectively made $36.5 million from this lobbying between 2015 and 2019.

Law Students For Climate Accountability is the most concrete sign yet of the growing discontent with the legal industry's complicity in the climate crisis. It follows protests last year at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Michigan, where law students disrupted recruitment events hosted by the law firm Paul Weiss. At the time, Paul Weiss were defending oil giant ExxonMobil in a New York court from the charge that ExxonMobil's knowledge about climate change as long ago as the 1960s, and their subsequent public denials of the problem, made them liable for damages.  

This turn by climate activists towards targeting the legal profession is a smart move, because it represents a powerful new way to halt the fossil fuel industry's runaway train before it sends us all hurtling off a cliff.

Taking on more than just the fossil fuel companies 

By now, it is obvious that the fossil fuel industry is a criminal enterprise. Many of the world's biggest oil companies have spent millions over decades spreading climate denial and delay. Nowadays they've switched to more subtle ways of holding back progress, continuing to pollute while pretending to care about climate change

What these companies are doing, all in the name of making more profit, is a crime against humanity. , While activists take on the fossil fuel industry directly, their accomplices are also being held accountable, of which the legal industry could be the latest major target. 

To see how effective a strategy targeting law firms could be, we only need to look at some of the other industries under attack for their work with fossil fuel companies.

For instance, fossil fuel industry needs money to finance its operations, so activists started targeting the banks that finance them, with boycotts, noisy protests and shareholder resolutions. As of April 2020, 134 globally significant financial institutions have introduced restrictions on financing for coal with restrictions for oil and gas too on the rise. Now coal companies are openly complaining about how hard it is to get finance to build new coal plants. Without a steady flow of institutions willing to finance them, the industry will begin to contract.

Similar pushes are happening with insurance companies refusing to underwrite fossil fuel projects after opposition from activists.

The fossil fuel industry needs banks, insurance companies, and lawyers — but banks, insurance companies and lawyers do not need the fossil fuel industry. 

These industries are more concerned with their public reputation than the fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuels are only one part of their overall business models, and one that they might back away from if the heat got too high.

The lawyers turn

And now it's the turn of lawyers to be pressured. 

The heat on law firms will only increase as law students become more and more climate-conscious. The student climate strikers who rose up around the world in 2019 are now entering university, and they are pissed off. 

Generation Z, who top law firms will soon want to recruit, are even more concerned about climate than Millennials. They will not be impressed with the hypocrisy of leading firms like Allen & Overy, who boast on their website that they 'rise to the challenge' of environmental problems, and yet scored a bottom-of-the-class 'F' on the climate scorecard and were ranked the very worst on the Vault 100 for fossil fuel transactions.

It is not far-fetched to say that in this situation, law firms that continue to do business with climate-wrecking companies are going to begin to struggle to recruit. It is already happening to the fossil fuel industry directly. Bloomberg data shows that the oil industry has a "millennial problem" related to climate change. Even before the pandemic, graduate recruitment had slowed to the lowest level since records began in 2012.

"University petroleum courses are being asked to take petroleum out of their name, because people think petroleum is the devil," Lucy Williams from the UK's Geological Society, said last year. This reputational damage could easily spread to the legal industry's biggest companies if they are seen as complicit in climate disaster. How many new graduates want to work for a firm actively destroying their own future?

Recruitment difficulties could lead to other, even more serious problems. Progressive local and state governments — important clients for law firms — could be pressured into shifting day-to-day business away from firms deeply embedded in the fossil fuel industry. As this pressure mounts, we will see the first law firms distance themselves from fossil fuel companies. 

This impact could be profound. How will fossil fuel companies function, how will they expand and perpetuate their planet-killing industry, if banks won't lend to them, insurers won't insure them, and lawyers won't transact, litigate or lobby for them? Even a small contraction in the available universe of law firms available to them will drive up fees, reduce the skills available to them, and quicken their demise — which is what we need if we want to have a liveable planet.

Unless law firms shape up on climate, fast, more and more students are going to prefer Lionel Hutz's vision of a world without them.

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