Global Warming: After the 1998 tobacco deal, many wondered where the next battleground for the shakedown lawyers would be. Few wonder now. The legal war over climate change is heating up — and it'll be costly.
The $246 billion tobacco settlement, reached by 46 state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, was not designed to improve public health. It was simply a way to line lawyers' pockets and create a slush fund for lawmakers.
Private plaintiffs' lawyers took in $8.2 billion in legal fees, and states have spent their share of the funds on items unconnected to tobacco-related illnesses and anti-smoking education.
It was, as we said a few years ago, "a naked cash grab."
Having exhausted that lucrative source, trial lawyers went trolling for another. Would it be the fast-food industry? Gun makers? What about companies that sell sugary drinks? Or those making pharmaceuticals?
While those industries will be beset by suing lawyers, they will be spared relative to the target that attracts the most attention. As we predicted on these pages, global warming will be the vehicle for the next litigation lottery. And the media are finally picking up on this.
"Climate-change litigation is fast emerging as a new frontier of law where some believe hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake," AFP reported Sunday.
Though not yet widespread, climate-related lawsuits have "ballooned" in the last three years, AFP said. Deutsche Bank says filings in the U.S. alone went from 48 in 2009 to 132 last year. "Entrepreneurial lawyers" are stalking prospective defendants, while businesses and insurers are trying to find ways to protect themselves.
While none of the lawsuits has been successful, the sheer volume of future suits is expected to generate what Rutgers law professor Howard Latin predicted in 2007 would be "one of the biggest legal practices in the next 20 years."
The typical defendants are energy-related companies and those that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, or whose products generate CO2, which is supposedly causing the planet to heat.
We've found no reliable estimates as to how much global warming litigation will cost. But this we do know: It will be expensive, and painfully so.
AFP reports that "compensation for losses inflicted by man-made global warming would be jaw-dropping, a payout that would make tobacco and asbestos damages look like pocket money."
The potential defendants in global warming litigation have a far bigger financial footprint than the handful of giant tobacco companies who were victimized by the settlement.
The costs won't be borne only by big corporations that deserve to be separated from their money, either. They'll be passed on to consumers, who will have to pay a tax in the form of higher prices for the next generation of goods that will be made as producers go to great lengths to avoid future litigation.
The fact is, the trial lawyers wouldn't have chosen climate change if they didn't think it would be lucrative. They're confident that they can show that contributions of CO2 emissions are causing the Earth to warm, which in turn is causing harm to the environment.
Of course, lawyers aren't shy about using junk science in the courtroom.
John Edwards, a former U.S. senator and one-time vice presidential candidate, made a fortune out of suing doctors in medical malpractice cases, claiming that physicians' errors were causing cerebral palsy in infants during childbirth.
The real science, though, pointed to genetics, not botched deliveries, a fact revealed during, not after, the roughly 10-year period that Edwards was trying cerebral palsy cases.
Our courthouses should be bastions of justice, not sources of cheap wealth or chambers that create laws out of thin air that no legislature would pass. Lawmakers create the policies that govern our judicial system, and they have both the authority, and the duty, to ensure that global warming litigation doesn't become legal plunder.
What should be on trial is the global warming guesswork that passes as science, not the producers in our economy.