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Climate Accountability and the Moral Logic of Stigma


Scott Stern (@ScottWStern) is a 2020 graduate of Yale Law School and co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability (LS4CA)

Camila Bustos (@MaCamilaBustos) is a J.D. Candidate (2021) at Yale Law School and co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability (LS4CA)

Scott and Camila are among the co-founders of Law Students For Climate Change (LS4CA), which seeks to hold the legal industry accountable for its role in protecting the fossil fuel industry. The group recently published a report scoring the top 100 law firms based on their contributions to the climate crisis.  

Nine months ago, a group of law students invaded a fancy dinner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to publicly shame Paul Weiss, a corporate law firm, into dropping one of its wealthiest and most powerful clients. Paul Weiss had long enjoyed a reputation as among the most progressive of the white-shoe corporate firms. But more recently, it had begun representing Exxon, the largest oil and gas company in the world. For decades, Exxon’s scientists and managers have known about the fossil fuel industry’s role in perpetuating global warming, and they have done nothing except spread misinformation. 

To a group of Harvard law students, this was a bridge too far. They decided to infiltrate Paul Weiss’s recruitment dinner, holding a banner reading, “Drop Exxon,” disrupting the chit chat, and chanting their demands.

“We have just a few years left to address the climate crisis,” one first-year law student said at the protest. “That means stopping corporate polluters from continuing to block climate action and evading accountability for their malfeasance. And what is the most critical tool these corporations use to get away with climate murder? It’s this right here.”

Right here: the legal industry. And in particular, the kinds of corporate firms that take on the richest and most powerful clients—including the big oil, gas, coal, mining, and fracking companies. While many prominent institutions are facing an overdue reckoning with the global impacts of fossil fuels, the legal profession has largely escaped scrutiny. But lawyers play a central role in the transactions that finance fossil fuels, the litigation that prevents climate accountability in the courts, and the lobbying that preserves the destructive status quo in Congress.

Pretending to be ‘neutral service-providers,’ law firms deploy their legal firepower to accelerate the climate crisis. By offering the top legal services in the country, elite law firms legitimize and uphold an industry deliberately committed to destroying the planet. These firms enable fossil fuel operations to continue despite the growing pressure to decarbonize.

The protest in Cambridge spread quickly. Law students in New Haven, New York, Ann Arbor, and Palo Alto soon staged their own disruptions of Paul Weiss recruitment soirees, acting under the banner of #DropExxon. Paul Weiss responded with a flaccid statement that the firm was “committed to free speech and debate, just as we are committed to the principle that we represent our clients and safeguard the rule of law zealously and to the best of our abilities,” thus echoing the conservative weaponization of the First Amendment.

As we’ve already documented in more detail on the LS4CA blog, it was this series of protests that led a group of law students at Yale to begin researching the culpability of not just Paul Weiss, but dozens of other corporate law firms in perpetuating climate change. Surely Paul Weiss was not alone in “zealously” shilling for fossil fuel companies.

Indeed it was not. As we detailed in the2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, a majority of the Vault Law 100 Firms—a national ranking of the hundred most prestigious and powerful big corporate firms—are actively profiting from the perpetuation of the climate crisis. Grading these firms on a scale of A to F, only 4 receive an A, while 14 receive a B, 15 receive a C, 41 receive a D, and 26 receive an F. While Paul Weiss was indeed the worst offender when it came to litigation on behalf of polluters—the “progressive” firm worked on as many cases exacerbating climate change as 62 other Vault 100 firm combined—Allen & Overy oversaw the most transactional work on behalf of polluters, and Hogan Lovells did the most lobbying. At least eight separate Vault 100 firms have supported the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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The purpose of this report is two-fold. First, most directly, it is to provide information. For potential clients and employees, the scorecard can reveal the true nature of a firm’s commitments. Second, in a broader sense, it is to weaponize public condemnation. Stigma is a powerful moral and tactical weapon. By circulating this information as widely as possible—and by including a pledge for both potential employees and the firms themselves—we hope to enable people of conscience to ostracize the offending firms, to refuse to work with or for them, to declare them to be beyond the moral pale.

This idea of using stigma or shame to effect change is an old one. As far back as the nineteenth century, abolitionists called for boycotts of goods produced by enslaved labor. Those advocating for such a boycott did not believe that they could singlehandedly cripple chattel slavery by refusing to buy sugar or cotton. Rather, they sought to transform the emerging consumerist marketplace into one laced with ethical significance. 

In the early 1960s, anti-apartheid activists began calling for divestment from apartheid-era South Africa—calls that took off in the 1970s and 1980s, as college students on campuses across Europe and the United States demanded that their universities refuse to do business with South Africa’s white supremacist government. At the same time, the United Farm Workers rallied allies across the nation to boycott non-union grapes. A few years later, queer Americans boycotted orange juice, in light of the extreme homophobia of the industry’s popular spokeswoman, Anita Bryant. In the early 1990s, activists launched a similar campus divestment campaign against the tobacco industry. In 2005, Palestinian activists founded the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, demanding (among other things) divestment from Israel because of its continued armed occupation of Palestinian territories and denial of Palestinians’ rights. More recently, museums have begun refusing donations from the Sackler family (of opioid crisis fame) and the Kanders family (which owns a company that produces tear gas).

Perhaps most significantly for our report, the fossil fuel divestment campaign has exploded across university campuses, nonprofit offices, and churches worldwide. More than forty American colleges have at least partially divested themselves of fossil fuel stock, and more than 1,100 institutions worldwide have divested approximately $11.5 trillion from the fossil fuel industry to date.

“stigmatisation poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain”

Boycotting, divesting, sanctioning, stigmatizing—all of these tactics recognize that shame is a powerful weapon in the fight for justice. Indeed, according to an influential 2013 report from the University of Oxford, “the direct financial impact of such [divestment] campaigns on share prices or the ability to raise funds is small but the reputational damage can still have major financial consequences.” The Oxford researchers found that the indirect effects of divestment on the fossil fuel industry can be significant and impactful, largely because “the stigmatisation process . . . poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.” Two years later, Oxford itself announced that it would divest from fossil fuels.

To be clear, the idea behind publicly pushing divestment—behind using shame to push for change—is not that capitalism can be ethical. It is, rather, a recognition that stigma and shame are effective tools to chip away at the edifice capitalism has built. We recognize these tools are effective but limited. A few more 2Ls refusing to work at Paul Weiss might not instantly rid the world of Exxon. But their refusal contributes to the vital process of shaming Exxon, of showing the oil giant—and its lawyer-enablers—that they should no longer feel comfortable in polite society. It tells the polluters and their lawyers that they are being watched, that a new generation of lawyers will not stand idly by as they are complicit in plunder.

It has become fashionable in certain liberal circles to decry the death of civility. Why can people no longer disagree gently; why must everything be so personal and so polarized? We disagree; the death of “civility” surrounding the climate crisis is clarifying and long overdue. The protests of the marginalized have always been policed for tone and timing, while the actions of the powerful have almost always escaped such scrutiny. At this vital moment in the history of civilization, what is needed is not more civility; it is more frankness. It is weaponized shame—aimed, for once, not at the powerless, but at the powerful.