Climate lawyers are gearing up for another monumental year in 2024.
Fresh off a landmark win in Montana last year, lawyers representing young climate activists are getting ready to spar over state and federal officials’ responsibility to protect future generations from wildfires, floods and other consequences of a warming planet.
The dangers of global climate change are also in the spotlight in a bevy of lawsuits from local governments that are advancing in state courts after years of procedural delays. The cases from state, county and city officials seek to put Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other oil companies on the hook for the billions of dollars that local governments across the country must pay to hold back rising seas and recover from intensifying storms.
While the fossil fuel industry has tried to move the climate liability lawsuits out of state courts — where oil companies fear they might lose — the Supreme Court last year largely rebuffed those efforts. But one such case is still pending before the justices: an appeal from oil companies in a lawsuit brought by Minnesota.
Elsewhere in the federal courts, investment funds and pension funds in 2024 will play defense against Republican lawsuits over the use of environmental, social and governance factors in investment decisions. GOP critics say the approach leaves the fossil fuel industry — and investors — at financial risk.
Here are some of the lawyers to watch in the year’s biggest climate cases.
California in September became the biggest player in the climate liability fray when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a lawsuit against five of the world’s largest oil companies and their subsidiaries.
The state has also retained the powerhouse San Francisco-based firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein as co-counsel.
Founding partner Elizabeth Cabraser — who, along with her colleagues, will help fashion California’s legal arguments against the oil and gas industry — has been involved in other high-profile legal battles, including multistate litigation against the tobacco industry and lawsuits that followed the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills.
Cabraser led litigation over faulty General Motors ignition switches and was lead counsel in a case that delivered a nearly $15 billion settlement against Volkswagen Group of America over the automaker’s skirting of emissions standards.
She has been selected four times as one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, which called her “a pillar of the plaintiffs’ bar.” The Wall Street Journal profiled her in 2016, noting that she’s “made a career of suing big businesses.”
Cabraser, who holds law and undergraduate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, told the newspaper that she aspired to be a theoretical physicist or a law librarian before co-founding her law firm in 1978.
One high-profile oil industry lawyer in the climate liability cases is now working behind the scenes.
Justin Anderson, who represented Exxon Mobil in fighting the local governments’ lawsuits, joined the company’s legal team in 2023 as assistant general counsel for litigation.
As outside counsel, Anderson, a partner at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, was part of a team that in 2019 helped Exxon defeat New York Democratic Attorney General Letitia James’ claims that the company’s disclosures of climate risks violated state law.
He also represented Exxon in a lawsuit from Massachusetts that accused the company of “greenwashing” — or misleading the public about its environmental practices — by running ads about its research into algae as a source for biofuels.
In 2022, Anderson told the legal outlet Lawdragon that he had been defending Exxon in climate litigation for more than six years, across multiple jurisdictions. The cases, he said, “present challenging questions about the appropriate forum to address climate change, and whether disagreements about energy and climate policy are actionable.”
Before joining Paul Weiss, Anderson was a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Yale Law School.
He told Lawdragon that his brother likes to say Anderson wanted to become a prosecutor because he liked watching “Law & Order” as a kid.
“How could you watch and not want to become a police officer, a prosecutor or defense attorney or a judge?” he said.
The founder of Our Children’s Trust scored a major victory last year when a Montana judge ruled that state officials had violated young people’s right to a clean and healthful environment by ignoring the effects of climate change.
Julia Olson hopes to repeat that success in 2024 and beyond.
The state court ruling — Held v. Montana — will serve as a “road map” in 2024 for her Oregon-based law firm’s efforts to hold other governments accountable for greenhouse gas emissions, Olson told supporters on a call in December.
“We want to scale our litigation up and be in as many states as we can get in,” said Olson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado and a law degree from the University of California. “We won’t stop this work until children’s rights are recognized.”
Our Children’s Trust is scheduled to be in court in June to argue the nation’s second youth-led climate trial, which accuses Hawaii’s transportation agency of falling short on climate action.
Not every youth climate case has been as successful as Montana’s: Judges in Alaska, Utah and Virginia have been reluctant to second-guess lawmakers.
Our Children’s Trust’s best-known case — Juliana v. United States, which targets the federal government’s climate policies — however, scored a win late last week when Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon denied the government’s latest motion to dismiss the case.
The firm filed its second federal case — Genesis v. EPA — at the end of last year.
Time, which named Olson to its first-ever TIME100 climate list, wrote that she “has sparked a new wave of environmental activism.”
Leinā‘ala Ley, Isaac Moriwake, Kylie Wager-Cruz
A trio of Hawaiian lawyers is getting ready to spearhead the nation’s second youth climate trial.
Earthjustice’s Leinā‘ala Ley, Isaac Moriwake and Kylie Wager-Cruz are among a team — including attorneys with Our Children’s Trust — that represents 14 mostly Indigenous youth in a lawsuit that claims Hawaii’s transportation agency isn’t doing enough to ward off climate change.
Their case goes to trial June 24, about a year after a Montana court heard the Held lawsuit.
“The transportation system is the next frontier in terms of really getting a handle on greenhouse gas pollution and affecting the kind of transformative systemic change that we need to avert climate disaster,” Moriwake told Reckon after young people won the Montana case.
Moriwake, a who holds undergraduate and law degrees from Pomona College and the University of Hawaii, became managing attorney at Earthjustice in 2019. He has focused on water rights and reversing diversions for sugar plantations to restore river flow for local and Native Hawaiian communities.
He has also pushed the state to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Hawaii leads the world in rooftop solar adoption and became the first U.S. state to commit to a 100 percent renewable energy goal in 2015, according to Earthjustice.
Ley last year helped Earthjustice land a settlement with Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort after suing the hotel for bright lights that conservationists said endangered Hawaiian petrels. She is a graduate of Brown University and the UC Berkeley School of Law.
Wager Cruz, who attended Boston University and the University of Hawaii, has worked with the Surfrider Foundation Kauaʻi Chapter to address pollution that affects the Hawaiian islandʻs nearshore waters.
The former Trump-era Labor Department secretary could be the first to argue a lawsuit brought by Republican critics of investment managers who account for climate risk.
Scalia, a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, is leading a lawsuit brought by four New York City employees and the conservative nonprofit Americans for Fair Treatment against a decision by former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to rid public pension funds of billions of dollars in fossil fuel investments.
Their lawsuit before the New York Supreme Court — if successful — could unlock a new legal claim for Republicans who criticize environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing as a threat to the energy industry.
As Labor secretary, Scalia adopted an anti-ESG rule that targeted efforts by the financial sector to provide clients with socially conscious options. The Biden administration later rolled back the Trump regulation, giving retirement plan managers the green light to account for ESG issues.
Federal regulations are a regular target for Scalia, a University of Virginia and University of Chicago Law School graduate who worked at Gibson Dunn before joining the Trump administration.
A Law360 profile in 2012 said that “striking down [Securities and Exchange Commission] rules is becoming old hat for Scalia.” At the time, he was representing the American Petroleum Institute in a challenge to an SEC rule that required companies to report payments made to foreign governments for oil, gas and mineral rights.
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti (R) waded into the ESG fight last year in no small way, filing what he says is a first-of-its-kind consumer protection lawsuit against the investment giant BlackRock.
The complaint alleges that Blackrock made false or misleading statements about the extent to which ESG considerations played a role in the firm’s investment strategies, robbing consumers of the ability to make an informed choice.
A BlackRock spokesperson said the company plans to “vigorously contest” the claims.
Skrmetti is also leading a Republican charge against an EPA environmental justice analysis that accompanied a high-profile Clean Air Act proposal, urging the agency to forgo such examinations in the future. EPA had found that Latinos were more likely to live near plants using cancer-causing sterilization techniques for medical equipment and proposed a plan to tighten regulation of those facilities.
But Skrmetti and other Republican attorneys general filed comments with the agency, saying that Congress hadn’t meant for environmental justice considerations to be woven into regulations.
“More than that, a decision to regulate that turns on whether the regulation benefits particular racial or ethnic subgroups would be constitutionally suspect,” the attorneys general wrote. EPA plans to issue the final version of the regulations in March.
Skrmetti was appointed in 2022 to an eight-year term by the Tennessee Supreme Court. He added a 10-person “strategic litigation unit” to the office in 2023, focused on targeting the federal government and “certain corporate activities that undermine the democratic process and harm consumers.”
Before becoming attorney general, Skrmetti served as chief counsel to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and chief deputy attorney general to his predecessor, Herbert Slatery. He is a graduate of George Washington University, the University of Oxford and Harvard Law School.