NORRIDGEWOCK — For once, California is exporting a trend I feel qualified to assess. Coastal cities and counties across the Golden State are banding together to sue the super-major oil and gas companies for the alleged future damages of climate change. If Maine cities were ever approached to join the suits as plaintiffs, they should not. Despite the surface appeal of lawsuits in the name of the environment, such suits have the potential to cause more harm than good.

I observed firsthand how powerful public class-action lawsuits can be. As attorney general of Maine from 1995 to 2001, I joined with state attorneys general across the country to sue the major tobacco companies for hiding the truth about their product’s impact on human health. I am proud to have helped win what is believed to be the largest legal settlement in Maine’s history.

Despite the success of this strategy, I am not convinced that it can or should be replicated in connection with climate change. The marketing and sale of tobacco products created a unique situation and called for state attorneys general to step up and protect their constituents by enforcing each state’s consumer protection laws.

I would urge any city or county attorney or public policy maker in Maine to approach these California-style climate change lawsuits with a spirit of Yankee skepticism. No one needs to smoke tobacco. In contrast, there are many necessary uses for fossil fuels, whether it is to heat Maine schools and hospitals in winter or power the cars of state troopers. So trying to compare a substance that has no necessary use and is consumed by a minority of Americans to a potentially problematic substance used in some way by every American just does not fit.

These suits are also highly selective, stripping out a few findings and comments about climate change from decades of balanced and serious scientific inquiry by large oil companies. Attempting to punish these companies for making products that are essential to the lives of all Americans is simply wrong.

Finally, the comparison with the tobacco cases breaks down when one looks at the level of certainty involved. Smoking kills – that is a fact. Climate change, on the other hand, exists in a nebulous world of computer projections and continually revised hypotheses. Although nearly all scientists agree that climate change is real, its likely effects are still a subject of intense disagreement.

Even when litigation appears warranted, the conscientious attorney must weigh the costs and benefits of that litigation. The greatest imperative in climate change is to reduce the scope of potential damage. In this effort, we have more to gain by cooperating with the oil and gas industry than by demonizing it. Consider the environmental benefits of the industry’s signal accomplishment: the increase in natural gas production in this country due to hydraulic fracturing. Abundant natural gas is replacing coal for energy generation, doing far more than any regulation to reduce the nation’s CO2 emissions. The industry is also investing billions into researching development of fuels from algae, as well as solar and wind energy. Big oil companies are the very centers of scientific talent and capital we need to create positive change.

It makes more sense to steer these companies in a greener direction than to try to bankrupt them. Otherwise, what good would it do to divert the research and development budgets of these corporations to litigation, with a large chunk of it going into the hands of just a few trial lawyers? Would that cool the Earth by even a hundredth of a degree?

In my three terms as Maine’s attorney general, I found that lawsuits cannot solve all of our problems. Partnership, not reprisal, is the best way to deal with climate change. And besides, imagine the carbon footprint of all the forests that would have to be felled to make all the paper for all the briefs that Maine lawyers would have to file.

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