Making a Case for Environmental Litigation?

During the aftermath of the BP oil spill the New York Times filed a self-referential story claiming that both BP and government officials were deliberately preventing reporters and photographers from accessing public areas impacted by the spill. Of course BP was trying to control the public relations disaster as much as possible, but what would government officials stand to gain from preventing reporters from communicating the full damage caused by the spill? In fact, read this transcript of NPR’s All Things Considered coverage of the subsequent lawsuit. Do you think that the media coverage of the oil spill impacted the outcome of the BP settlement?
Moving away from the BP spill, The NYTimes has an article that profiles the Center for Biological Diversity, an NGO that works to protect endangered animals. The CBD doesn’t protest or lobby, it only relies on litigation. Some critics of this technique argues that relying on lawsuits doesn’t lead to full on solutions, but the NGO has won the vast majority of their cases. Do you think the CBD’s tactics are effective? What do you think of the NYTimes article’s coverage of the litigious non-profit?
Environmental issues like climate change and pollution are international issues that impact people across borders. Check out these articles at Bloomberg and the New York Times to catch up on the ongoing case between Chevron and a class action lawsuit filed by a group of American lawyers on behalf of “farmers and indigenous Indians,” in Ecuador. The lawsuit, which was initially filed in the United States, has been moved from the US to Ecuador and even when the courts in Ecuador declared that Chevron had to pay to clean up the oil spills in parts of the Ecuadorian rainforest. But Chevron has countered with its own lawsuits. This case has been dragging on for literally years. Why hasn’t it gotten as much coverage as the BP spills? What role could more coverage of this case play in the deadlock between both parties? Many sources claimed that BP settled instead of going to trial in order to avoid having the company’s dirty laundry aired. How can we hold corporations and foreign (and, remember, sovereign) governments accountable for damaging the environment? Do you think litigation is the best route for settling international disputes such as the Chevron case?

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10 Responses to “Making a Case for Environmental Litigation?”

  1. It seems clear that some companies certainly benefit from a lack of transparency. Most notably in one of the articles they talked about BP discouraging and even prohibiting journalists from doing their job, which is to report the news. Despite the BP oil spill to be the largest, the media was prevented from showing the true scope of devastation. I think this was of particular concern to BP because one does not need to be an environmental expert, or even have a background in science to understand that the ecology and natural habitat has been utterly destroyed. These images have the potential for the public to respond strongly, or even question their own uses of gas and oil, this of course would be terrible for BP. It was truly shocking to me that BP somehow had control over what were considered to be public beaches. Isn’t that illegal to prevent their admission to a public beach, could that be an aspect of environmental litigation?
    I really enjoyed the piece that talked about the conservation of biological diversity. The group aims for changes through cases through the court system. One interesting aspect I found was the aversion to large sweeping climate change or carbon bills. I have hypothesized that large sweeping climate change reforms are unlikely as well as could be too general to truly benefit all parts of the country, yet this is what many environmental groups still strive for. It comes back to the ultimate question which is how is the best way to mitigate the effects of climate change and possibly even reverse its effects. Would small victories lead to a larger scale tailored change, or is the only way to change to rely on the federal government to mandate change with steep, enforceable penalties?

  2. As frustrating and frightening as it is that important stories like the BP oil spill are made so difficult to tell, it seems like we should expect these challenges, and in some ways, I think the mere challenge of coverage proves just how serious the event was. For me, the New York Times article that focused less on the incident and more on the difficulty of coverage still did a great deal in getting me thinking about what happened. Why won’t they let us tell the story? What are they hiding? My final conclusion; it must be that bad. What BP and other companies that have been in similar situations don’t seem to realize is that if we can’t tell the story, we’ll say that we can’t and say why. This can be almost as compelling in some ways.

    Even though a company or government agency covering their tracks can be very persuasive to the public, even though it can scream “Something is seriously wrong here”, it isn’t as good as the real story. The general public has a right to know what is going on in their environment and what companies are upholding what standards. It shouldn’t be so easy for companies or the government to deny journalists information because this is denying the public information.

  3. Holding corporations and businesses responsible for environmental damage and pollution is an age-old question. There have been many suggestions and methods to doing this, such as taxes and other forms of penalties governments can enforce on companies. However, the problem continues as many corporations continue to pollute and hurt the environment through loop holes and other means. BP coming under public scrutiny may have been an effective way to hold it responsible for the oil spill, as this directly impacts its profit and success. Perhaps bringing the immense damage and environmental problems that are caused by businesses to the public sphere is a critical step to making sure companies take responsibility and come up with solutions.

  4. I think that an international community should be instituted set environmental standards for companies to follow. This community should be comprised of the United Nations, NGOs, and possible an international trade commission as well. They should have to answer to the International Criminal Court when they violate the environmental regulations. The environment is not just a nation by nation issues, what we do here in the USA effects people all over the world. A global issue deserves global accountability and sovereignty.

  5. Journalists can help to shed light on corporations who are not following the environmental regulations of the international community. They can play the role of educator to the public to raise awareness and hold companies accountable to their environmental goals.

  6. Part of the issue comes from the Environmental groups themselves. In many cases they pick up on these high profile cases as a mechanism to get a bumper crop of donors, rather than address the issue in a way that makes sense. The BP spill, for instance, feature many a seabird washing environmental activist asking for funding. In truth, washing seabirds does nothing, they are already poisoned. Rather than dig into the real ways to sort out an issue like that (government oversight, liability laws) they choose the cute/sexy route and avoid the boring litigation.

  7. jacquelinegamache Reply March 14, 2013 at 12:57 am

    Coverage of epic distasters such as the BP oil spill will always be difficult. Companies unfortunately still need to report to their stock holders and report positive earnings. The problem becomes more complicated when influential companies are top campaign contributors and instead of reporting to their constituents, politicians help protect their donors. It is encouraging to read about grassroots movements making progress. But it is unrealistic to believe grassroots can solely monitor the actions of the private center. I think it is more important to inform those in business school about the implications of their decisions made in the boardroom. They are no longer just responsible for the health of their own balance sheets, but the health of the earth.

  8. A journalist’s job is to uncover stories such as this one. Media impacts nearly everything, and when something as large as a massive oil spill is revealed, it will impact the corporation’s response (in this case BP.) These corporations want to make money, and therefore want to look good to consumers.

  9. Media coverage of any issue or event will influence high profile decisions and issues such as the BP settlement. Public opinion is formed based on what the media puts out, and corporations are not independent of this thought.
    With regards to CBD, their tactics are certainly effective and the statistics presented in the article profiling them prove it. They’ve won 93% of their cases related to pushing for tougher environmental regulations on climate change and the like. Although critics of the organization say their strategy is too brazen, it does highlight the ways in which its tactics are changing the policies and procedures of governmental agencies for good. Law suits are sure fire ways to reshape our thinking of environmental standards that for too long have been relaxed and unchecked. The NYT coverage of the litigious non-profit does a good job of highlighting CBD’s successes and criticisms, balancing its coverage of the NGO.
    Like CBD strongly believes, corporations and foreign governments can be held accounting for damaging the environment simply by having citizens constantly remind them that they work to serve their people’s wants and not their own wants. Litigation may not necessarily be the best route but it is highly effective in putting change on paper and not just in theory. Laws officially hold corporations and governments accountable, and as much as these two entities try to cover up their wrongdoings, the role of journalism exists to undercover when this happens.

  10. I agree with Gabriella when she says that litigation may not necessarily be the best way to solve such issues, but it is effective. In that sense, the Center for Biological Diversity seems to be doing a good job. Critics aside, 93% of success in law suits is an expressive number, and even though they may not be solving any issue, they can get people thinking twice about the consequences of companies actions over the environment.
    Litigation is a long and sometimes boring process, and quite often when the results come the public has lost interest in the case. In cases like the Chevron vs. Ecuador, there are not only environmental questions, but also cultural differences. Some comments on the article about that case show that people let their own prejudice against foreign nations overcome the environmental question.

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