UCLA Professor’s Role in Climate Litigation Raises Transparency Questions
UCLA law professor Ann Carlson is thankful for the role wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys play in advancing climate change litigation across the country. She is also grateful for the significant funding her UCLA law clinic receives to focus on climate litigation efforts. But what’s not always clear is Carlson’s own position and her ties to lawyers and donors pressing forward with a climate litigation agenda.
Earlier this fall, I had a chance to hear directly from Carlson at the 27th Annual Environmental Law Conference at Yosemite. The event had everything one might expect, including plenty of talk about the recent Supreme Court confirmation and California’s role in pushing back against President Trump.
What caught my attention, however, was the panel on climate change litigation featuring Carlson and Victor Sher of Sher Edling, LLP in San Francisco, one of the primary plaintiffs’ attorneys working to file climate liability lawsuits across the country. The panel discussion centered on the question, “Is Climate Change the next Big Tobacco?” and analyzed complaints filed against three dozen companies under public nuisance, design defect, and negligence claims.
Carlson noted in her presentation that she was “highly skeptical” of the climate cases first brought in the early 2000s. The most recent round of cases are “different,” she argued, because they are being filed in state courts, where she believes they stand a better chance than previous cases. Her talking points included mention of the often-cited Rockefeller-funded 2015 investigations by InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism as well as the Rockefeller-funded science conducted by the Climate Accountability Institute on climate change attribution.
But the biggest difference in this round of climate litigation according to Carlson? Sher Edling, the plaintiffs attorneys, leading the climate litigation vanguard. As Carlson argued, it’s “because Sher Edling really knows how to plot against these defendants and knows what it takes in terms of resources, they know what to expect, there will be mud flung in every direction, hoping something will stick to the wall.”
Carlson was introduced on the Yosemite panel merely as a neutral observer and an academic from a nearby university focused on climate change lawsuits. A quick look at Carlson’s biography shows she is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law, and the inaugural Faculty Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law, and she is also on the faculty of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.
But what was not revealed at the conference nor on Carlson’s CV is that she is consults directly for Sher Edling on these very same climate cases. When I raised the question about her involvement and UCLA Law School’s role in the lawsuits during the panel’s Q&A, she grudgingly acknowledged it. She then welcomed the “extraordinarily generous donors that have allowed us to really just build an incredible team that’s involved on a bunch of climate change issues and a bunch of others as well.”
I later followed up with her about her specific role in the litigation, where she subsequently admitted that, “Yeah, I do a little bit.” Later, NBC News reported that she is working on these climate cases “pro bono.” So Carlson works “a little bit” on these cases “pro-bono,” while her school receives significant funding to focus on climate litigation efforts, but also speaks a neutral observer and academic on these issues?
And about those donors to her law clinic she is proud of, let’s take a closer look.
According to UCLA’s website, the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law is funded by several multi-million-dollar grants from the Emmett Foundation, which also funds a similar clinic at Harvard University.
The UCLA clinic is also heavily supported by the wealthy environmentalist Andrew Sabin, who funds Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, which recently filed an amicus brief in support for New York City’s climate lawsuit. If Sabin’s name sounds familiar, it might be because of the sexually explicit and inappropriate comments he made to the New York Times in October 2016, just a year before the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
The UCLA clinic is also connected to the New York University legal fellows program, established by a $6 million grant from Michael Bloomberg in 2017, which has paid to place environmental attorneys in the offices of Democratic state attorneys generals’ offices in an effort to coordinate their actions on environmental issues, as reported by Western Wire. The attorneys placed in the New York Attorney General’s office have supported New York City’s climate lawsuit in addition to staffing the attorney general’s ongoing investigation of ExxonMobil. No surprise to learn that one of the UCLA law clinic graduates is now a fellow in this program in Boston, serving Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
As for the goal of these climate cases and the organizations behind them, Carlson conceded the cases are not at all about addressing climate change or helping address environmental justice concerns. “I think these lawsuits are great, and I think they are interesting. I think they could provide real benefits to some of the jurisdictions, but they don’t really get at the mitigation of emissions,” she said. “I think we’d be misleading to say that this is a solution to environmental justice concerns.”
The same sentiments were expressed by one of the lawyers representing Boulder, Colo. in its climate lawsuit, David Bookbinder, has also claimed that his case “is property rights work, this is not climate work.”
There are plenty of other examples where a little bit of sunlight would be helpful in exploring how law schools, lawyers, and donors have come together to forge a climate litigation movement. The University of Chicago’s Abrams Law Clinic comes to mind, where a wealthy donor of the law clinic helped connect a plaintiffs’ attorney with the Attorney General of Illinois with the goal of convincing the attorney general to investigate ExxonMobil for alleged climate fraud.
If these lawsuits do not help solve the climate challenge, then what are they about? It’s increasingly clear they’re about money. These cases financially benefit plaintiffs’ attorneys and university law clinics’ well-connected donors. As we learned from the movie All The President’s Men, investigative journalists should “follow the money” to shine a bright spotlight onto how these cases are bought and paid for by wealthy donors and aggressive’ attorneys to carry out a campaign against the oil and gas industry.