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Carbon Consciousness & Action

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Consumer Education Key to Climate Policy Progress

Getting consumers to accept personal responsibility for their carbon usage is a critical step in building a durable political coalition to address climate change.  Consumers who are concerned about their personal CO2 emissions are likely not only to reduce their emissions, they are much more likely to strongly back carbon taxes and other climate-friendly legislation.

Key messages of a consumer-directed campaign include:  “Each gallon of gas you use puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the air,” “the CO2 you put in the air stays in the air,” and “reduce the CO2 that you can, offset what you can’t.” Read more…

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Letter to Trial Lawyers

We trial lawyers get paid by insurance companies for administering insurance claims, just like claims adjusters and defense lawyers. Have we become as stolid and conservative as the insurance companies who cut our checks?

We are now in the midst of a corporate takeover of our democratic institutions and precedents. The 2008 election of Obama, once seen as a triumph ushering in a new progressive era, now seems merely a blip in a long term trend towards increased income inequality and corporate control. A right-wing House of Representatives is dictating the political agenda. A conservative Supreme Court is steadily eroding civil rights and fundamental precedents. State legislatures are rolling back union rights and laying off teachers. Most of the Republican presidential candidates are favoring drastic cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and elimination of the EPA and other cornerstones of government regulation.

Despite these alarming developments, our focus as trial lawyers, both individually and in our association, remains narrow and technical. We censor ourselves, avoid political discussion, and keep our heads down and focused on our clients and on earning six and seven figure incomes.

Our dozens of legal education courses are almost exclusively directed on convincing 12 jurors to find for our clients. No training is offered on how we can use our position to convince the broader public to support laws and policies that promote economic and social justice, how trial lawyers can leverage our social and client networks for political change, nor how we can use our formidable oratorical and explanatory skills to advance justice in the broader society. For example, the Gerry Spence/Paul Luvera Trial Lawyers College in March, 2011 forged tremendous solidarity, and fostered open sharing of ideas and a real esprit de corps among trial lawyers as righteous warriors. On the other hand, not a word was said about the right-wing takeover of the House of Representatives, nor what we could have done/can do about it.

Collectively, we have acted as a typical interest group—focused on expanding tort liability and related issues that impact our bottom line—and generally eager to minimize confrontation with politicians or interest groups, for fear that it will limit our ability in Olympia or Washington, D.C. to achieve one of our narrow legislative priorities.

We chose the ambitious name for ourselves Washington Association for Justice. Did we mean it, or was it just clever branding? What does it mean to be “for justice”? Can we be “for justice” focused solely on helping clients one at a time in the courtroom, when the pillars of American egalitarianism and democracy are crumbling?

Many trial lawyers feel guilty about the excellent money we are making, because we know that the system we are squeezing it out of is corrupt and increasingly unfair. While our clients’ incomes are going down, ours are going up, riding three decades of 10%+ annual increases in health care costs. We don’t know what to do about our guilt, and we feel isolated and powerless to do anything about our politics. We keep our heads down and work, and occasionally write large checks to Democratic candidates and worthy causes.

The first step in addressing these issues is for us to address within the organization and as individuals basic questions such as:

• What is the role of lawyers and our trial lawyer organization as advocates for justice outside the courtroom?
• What are the major threats to democracy and the rule of law?
• How can we use the powerful communication skills we practice as trial lawyers?
• How can we gain a platform to influence voters?
• What other groups should we work with to attain our goals?
• How can we ethically involve former clients in political activity?

There are going to be divergent political views within our membership about each of these questions, but we should try to work through these differences, and find common ground where we can. Once we address these questions, we can escape from the narrow roles we have defined for ourselves, and assert bolder leadership at a time when our country desperately needs it.

Staying in the Streets

A few hundred protestors toppled the 30 year-old Mubarak regime in less than three weeks.

Those who started the protests took big risks.  They faced the same police torture chambers that earlier anti-government protestors had endured.  They persevered.  Those who came out a few days later faced the loss of their jobs and status in the society, and didn’t go home when the police and army told them to.  By Thursday of last week, Mubarak brought his thugs to beat the protestors, but the protestors stayed in the streets.  When Mubarak announced yesterday that he would remain in office,    they stayed in the streets in ever greater numbers, until the government was finally toppled.  They are now singing and dancing in the streets, victorious.

Given that the army is now in command, they would be fools to leave the streets now.  They need to stay in the streets until their demands for major restructuring social restructuring and democratic reforms are met, and until a free election occurs.

What does the Egyptian experience mean for us?

First, our “intractable” social and economic problems are really not that intractable. We sometimes convince ourselves that we can’t achieve major progressive reforms to our energy, gun, civil justice, immigration, or other  policies.  We tell ourselves that filibustering Senators, a conservative Supreme Court, and a new and reactionary House majority backed by now-uncontrolled rivers of corporate cash are obstacles too large to overcome.    However, Egyptians long-suppressed by torture chambers, giant police and security services, and government-controlled media were able to topple their regime in three weeks.  They did it by simplycoming together and staying for several weeks in ever larger protests.

Who doubts that tens and hundreds of thousands of protestors gathering for three weeks consistently in streets and public squares across the country to protest the domination of our oil, insurance, weapons and banking oligarchs would have a huge impact?   After all, a few thousand tea party activists in each state had a huge influence on the last election.

Given what the Egyptians faced, the obstacles to major social and economic change in our society are relatively minor.  We can communicate quickly and freely with one another via the internet.  We can gather in large groups without fear of violence or reprisal.  We do not have our leaders jailed.  Our political system is responsive to large, well-organized groups of voters.

Then what are the obstacles we face?  Apathy.  Energies focused narrowly on doing our jobs and making money.  Ignorance of the issues.   Disorganization.  These were the precise problems that held the Egyptians back for decades, probably even more than the secret police.

The election of Obama was our closest analogue to the Egyptian revolution.  We were furious with what we felt was an undemocratic Bush regime.  We wanted change.   Tens of thousands of volunteers dedicated their energies in the Fall of 2008 to electing Obama.  When Obama was elected,  we went home.

Going home was our mistake.  Our networks of activists withered, along with our political energies.  As a result, we were lucky to get watered-down health care and financial reform.  There has been no change to our archaic, irresponsible, and dangerous energy policy. No immigration reform.  The tax and budget situation is worse.  Our country is still laboring under the burden of profound misallocation of resources.

After the election, the entrenched powers quickly regrouped, deftly manipulating their financial strength and popular economic frustration and dissatisfaction with the status quo into support for candidates who support policies favored by our economic oligarchs.  They engineered a takeover of the House, and are gearing up to take back the presidency and Senate.

The 2012 election season will spark a revival of political interest.  We need to capitalize on it, not only to re-elect Obama and a progressive Congress, but also to establish networks capable of maintaining the energy and focus on the key issues: good health care for all, converting to a fossil-free economy, narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, immigration reform, and the right of workers to organize freely.   The question isn’t whether we can make these changes.  The question is whether we want them enough to stay in the streets until we do make these changes.

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