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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Polluters’ lawyers should not get a free pass

The actions of the lawyers defending Exxon are indefensible

Image result for big oil and big tobaccoRecently, the Harvard Crimson published an editorial attacking Harvard Law School students for using direct action to deliver a message to the law firm Paul Weiss – that we will not work for them while they continue working for ExxonMobil, the oil giant that Paul Weiss is defending in dozens of lawsuits related to the company’s role in polluting our planet and knowingly funding decades of climate denial.

The premise of the Crimson editorial was a regurgitation of the basic precept that everyone deserves a lawyer. 

It is always interesting when apologists for corporate power trot out this principle to defend a legal system that leaves 80% of the civil legal needs of poor Americans unmet, or to justify an educational pipeline in which just 17% of graduates from Harvard Law School go on to work for organizations dedicated to serving the bottom 95% of the income bracket. 

One would think that an editorial board professing to believe so strongly in the principle that “everyone deserves a lawyer” might use its platform to argue that their own school should produce more lawyers for, well, everyone. 

Alas, it seems it is only the most powerful corporations in the world that are worthy of the Crimson’s defense.


But many of us at Harvard Law School entered the legal profession because we think the law can be a force for good. We believe this system does not need to remain overwhelmingly rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. 

And we know that we are living in a do-or-die moment in human history, with just a few years remaining to avert the worst consequences of the looming climate crisis. That is why, as young people and future lawyers, we chose to stand up, take action, and launch our campaign calling on Paul Weiss to #DropExxon.

Exxon has, according to climate leaders like Bill McKibben, “helped more than any other institution to kill our planet.” Recent research published by scientists at Harvard, George Mason, and Bristol universities confirmed that – despite knowing the truth about climate change over 30 years ago – Exxon continued to pollute our planet and fund a decades-long campaign of deception and misinformation designed to help them evade regulation, pad their profits, and block the climate action needed to avert unprecedented human destruction.

A number of public officials have taken note of this species-wide betrayal: the Attorneys General of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, and municipal attorneys in cities including San Francisco, Baltimore, and Boulder, CO, among others, have filed lawsuits designed to force Exxon to answer for its decades of deception and bad faith climate denial.

In each of these cases, Paul Weiss has stepped in against the public to shield Exxon from accountability for its staggeringly destructive acts. And Paul Weiss goes beyond simple defense in its work for the fossil fuel giant. 

The firm has adopted extreme tactics to crush future efforts to bring Exxon to justice, filing a number of retaliatory lawsuits on Exxon’s behalf that, despite having little merit – a federal judge characterized one such countersuit as implausible and based upon extremely thin evidence – are clearly designed to intimidate opponents from pursuing further climate litigation.

These are precisely the tactics that Ted Wells, a partner at Paul Weiss, used for years in defense of Big Tobacco as that industry hired fake experts and promoted conspiracy theories to skirt responsibility for misleading the public and killing regulation of its harmful products. 

Wells is using this same unethical playbook today on behalf of Big Oil, prompting the attorney general of Massachusetts to call Paul Weiss’s legal strategies “absurd” and “blatantly obstructionist.”

These acts of complicity in the climate crisis deserve condemnation. But our organizing is about more than condemnation – it is about winning a livable future.

For the last decade, the climate movement has understood that preserving our planet requires disrupting business as usual. From the fossil fuel divestment movement’s targeting of the financial mechanisms that hold up corporate polluters, to the Sunrise Movement’s focus on political actors that are barriers to climate action, young people are working to dismantle every piece of the apparatus that the fossil fuel industry has built up to block climate action and maintain an unsustainable status quo. 

Unfortunately, the legal profession – the field that we have chosen to enter – plays a pivotal role in this apparatus. And that is a reality we will not ignore.

As young people, we have a choice. Will we chase the biggest paycheck wherever that leads us, even if it means using our labor to enable corporations to endanger human civilization as we know it? Or will we dedicate our energy and capacity to the defense of our families, our communities, and our planet from this existential threat?

By committing to disrupt business as usual until leaders in the legal industry drop Big Oil, we are choosing a livable future. Of course, this isn’t an easy fight. No matter what we do, victory is far from assured. But it’s not beyond reach. We still have a path to a better world. And with the very future of human civilization on the line, what wouldn’t we do to take that path?

Aaron Regunberg is a former Rhode Island state representative. In 2018 he ran for lieutenant governor on a bold progressive platform, earning 49 percent in the statewide primary. He currently serves as Senior Advisor on Policy to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.