By Dana Drugmand
The latest effort to push back against the growing wave of climate liability lawsuits was launched earlier this month by several attorneys aligned with the climate-denial movement. Their project, Climate Litigation Watch, promises transparency and an “objective record of litigation related to climate change.”
The website, while claiming to be a neutral clearinghouse for documents, records and information on climate change lawsuits, is run by an attorney with a long history of ties to the coal industry, and strikes an antagonistic tone in describing these lawsuits as a “perversion of the justice system” and the modern equivalent to burning witches. The goal of climate liability litigation, the site asserts, “is to conjure a history of illegal conduct in order to advance an extremist policy agenda and fulfill a vision of an energy-starved world.”
Christopher Horner, an attorney and senior fellow at Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a leading figure behind the nonprofit funding this site, Government Accountability & Oversight. (That group takes on the acronym GAO, potentially confusing people with the federal government’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.)
Horner’s past work includes counseling cigarette manufacturers and lobbying on behalf of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, paint company Dunn Edwards, and the bankrupt energy company Enron. He has long been a climate denier, authoring several books attacking climate science: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism) (2007) and Red Hot Lies: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud, and Deception to Keep You Misinformed (2008). He was behind a lawsuit that tried to make public email and other research documents by climate scientist Michael Mann that was dismissed by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Experts say initiatives like Climate Litigation Watch are common strategies used by industry defenders in major liability battles.
“These are diversionary tactics that are similar to the claims being made [in an Exxon countersuit] in the federal district court in Tarrant County, Texas, and are consistent with the denialist campaign oil companies funded to try to mislead the public about the harms of climate change,” said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law.
Horner’s ties to the coal industry have been revealed in the bankruptcy filings of several coal companies in the past several years. The Free Market Environmental Law Clinic and the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, both associated with Horner, also received funding from coal companies. “We would never have had proof of coal funding these operations without these bankruptcies,” said Kert Davies of Climate Investigations Center. The bankruptcy filings revealed Horner’s deep ties to an underground campaign funded by the coal industry to discredit climate science and block climate action.
Now, Horner is turning his attention to new climate lawsuits and investigations by several state attorneys general. He is using familiar tactics, filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documents, to argue the litigation is a planned conspiracy by lawyers and activists. However, as Davies cautioned, it is unclear who is funding the new initiative. “We don’t know who’s paying them now,” he said. “It’s too simple to say this is just about industry funding.”
Another lawyer profiled on CLW’s website is FOIA specialist Jason Miller. According to the website, Miller has previously interned on Capitol Hill, worked for a religious think tank and participated in the Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.
GAO’s website additionally lists Matthew Hardin and J. Gregory Garrison on its Board of Directors. Hardin, a Republican, is the Commonwealth Attorney for Greene County, Virginia. He has previously represented the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic and E&E Legal in court seeking emails between EPA staff and environmental groups on discussions relating to the Paris Climate Agreement talks. Garrison is a longtime friend of Vice President Mike Pence and recently retired as a radio host in Indianapolis. He is also a lawyer, best known for successfully prosecuting boxer Mike Tyson for rape. Garrison has also denied climate change, recently describing it as “a hoax, a snare and a delusion always.”
One notable feature of the Climate Litigation Watch website is a section profiling “key players” involved in climate accountability initiatives including liability litigation. The “Player Cards” section includes profiles of Serge Dedina, the mayor of Imperial Beach, Calif.; Kevin Kirchner, the communications director for the law firm Sher Edling; Matt Pawa, attorney for the firm Hagens Berman; and Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. Previously, there were also cards profiling Davies and David Sassoon, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, but those no longer appear on the site.
Kirchner called the site a typical ploy to distract from the issues and to attack the messenger. “It’s unclear why they put me up there,” he said. “But they want to go after the people who are the messengers on this. They want to go after the people who are standing up for residents, workers, businesses in these communities, instead of talking about what’s really at stake here.”