President Trump speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers in SeptemberThe National Association of Manufacturers mirrors President Trump's attitude about climate change and vows to battle climate litigation. Photo credit: Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

In response to a growing wave of climate change lawsuits and legal investigations attempting to hold fossil fuel corporations accountable for climate consequences and decades of deception, a large industry trade group is now fervently pushing back with an “accountability” initiative of its own.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has launched the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, (MAP) which aims to undermine what it calls a coordinated campaign that “jeopardizes the ability of all manufacturers to continue growing and providing jobs to millions of Americans.” NAM identifies those behind the campaign as “trial lawyers, public officials, deep-pocketed foundations and other activists.”

The project is similar to previous industry-backed public relations campaigns against lawyers defending victims dying of asbestos-related diseases, those taking on the tobacco industry and advocates fighting for lead paint removal.

MAP targets the new climate tort cases filed in California, as well as the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general investigations into ExxonMobil. Blog posts on the MAP website call out actions by specific individuals and organizations, including attorney Matt Pawa, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the nonprofit news website InsideClimate News and others.

The project springs from NAM’s Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action, which alleges that this activist campaign is politically motivated and intended for profit at the expense of American workers. “It has become clear that these activist plaintiffs’ attorneys, sympathetic academics and agenda-driven media outlets are distorting the use of tort litigation to advance their narratives with the ultimate objective of undermining manufacturers and the engine of the American economy,” NAM senior vice president and general counsel Linda Kelly said in a press release announcing the initiative.

One of its main arguments is that plaintiff attorneys are bringing these climate cases purely for their own profit and the expense of fighting the claims comes at the expensive of job and wage increases. In a November op-ed in Investor’s Business Daily, Kelly wrote, “Trial lawyers are waging a reckless assault against American manufacturers in pursuit of a fat payday for themselves.”

Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.

Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law debunked Kelly’s claim that climate cases are driven by trial lawyers seeking a big payday, calling it simplistic and incorrect.

“The challenge with that argument is that these cases are not simply being brought by lawyers. They’re being brought by nonprofit organizations, they’re being brought by state attorneys general, they’re now being brought by cities’ attorneys,” Muffett said. “The most obvious profit motive involves those companies who are being sued, not those who are bringing the investigation.”

“The deep irony is the name of the website and of the project,” Muffett added. “We would welcome them helping us hold those who are most responsible for climate impacts responsible, but that is clearly not their goal.”

The timing of the initiative is also telling.  “What is ironic is the launch of this project at precisely the moment when the courts are finally addressing and overwhelmingly rejecting the sort of empty legal arguments that Exxon and its corporate and political allies have been making with respect to the ongoing investigations,” Muffett said.

NAM Intervened in Youth Lawsuit, Then Withdrew

While NAM’s accountability project is new, the trade association is no stranger to litigation. “NAM has a history of trying to use the courts aggressively to oppose regulations the industry doesn’t like,” said Muffett.

Notably, NAM, along with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), initially joined the landmark youth climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States as an intervenor on side of the federal government, only to later back out. As the case proceeded and the court required the intervenors to explain their position on climate change under oath, NAM refused and moved to withdraw from the case in May. The court allowed all three intervenors to back out of the case.

Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit spearheading the youth case, said at the time in response to the withdrawal motion: “Over 18 months ago, NAM, like the other fossil fuel intervenors, went to great lengths to become a party defendant in this case. They claimed their members were seriously threatened by our case. Now, faced with significant legal victories by these young plaintiffs, and on the eve of having to take a position on climate science, NAM wants out of this case. We believe the court will determine that there should be consequences for wasting the court’s time.”

Phil Gregory, counsel for the youth plaintiffs, said he’s surprised no one has taken NAM to task for its hypocrisy and the conflicting views among its numerous members regarding climate change. “NAM opposed our case in favor of the fossil fuel companies, yet members of NAM’s board of directors, such as Proctor & Gamble, Merck and Pfizer are claiming in other venues that they’re committed to preventing climate change,” he said. “So they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.”

“These companies shouldn’t be able to hide behind their trade associations and take contradictory positions.” NAM, he said, “is not only a hypocrite, but it doesn’t have the courage to take a stand under oath.”