The Man Who Could Help Big Oil Derail America’s Climate Fight


Covering Climate NowThis story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

In the spring of 2019, Phil Goldberg, a lawyer and hired gun for a front organization serving some of America’s most powerful oil firms, spotted an opportunity to serve his masters.

The University of Hawaii was holding a conference about a wave of lawsuits against the oil industry, and Goldberg was alarmed that the event failed to include representatives from the energy business. So, the day before the symposium, he fired off an e-mail to the university demanding that Big Oil be heard alongside its critics.

The event was to interrogate the oil industry’s decades-long cover-up involving the climate crisis. But a one-sided debate, Goldberg wrote, “does students and the general public a significant disservice.” He insisted that the meeting should be postponed.

Denise Antolini, associate dean at the university’s law school who organized the conference, said that, in her 23-year-career as a law professor, she had never received such demands.

“Your request to disrupt our public event was quite surprising, especially coming from far across the continent, from someone I’ve never heard of, on behalf of a private client with an apparently direct financial interest in chilling debate about climate litigation,” she replied.

The conference went ahead, but Goldberg chalked up his intervention as a win. He had managed to pressure Antolini into reciting his objections to the conference in her opening statement. He also convinced the university to post his blogs on its website alongside a letter published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser denouncing the meeting for daring to suggest there was a solid legal case against the oil companies.

Goldberg is part of a network of enablers working to preserve Big Oil’s power and reputation as it faces a barrage of litigation. More than two dozen cities, states, and municipalities allege that the industry lied to Americans for decades by downplaying and outright denying that fossil fuels caused climate change. The lawsuits demand that companies use some of their vast profits to help pay for the human toll of the climate crisis, including the damage brought by rising seas and increasingly severe weather disasters.


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