The time has come for law firms to make a pledge on climate change

Issue October 2007 By Nancy B. Reiner, Esq.

Throughout history, change has often come about through lawyers and law firms. The Civil Rights Movement, the state tobacco cases and the impact of Superfund litigation are just a few examples. Today, we are faced with a rapidly growing and justified concern for climate change, yet law firms have been slow to respond. Some national law firms do practice sustainable and “green” measures in their offices, but Massachusetts law firms, with the commonwealth’s growing focus on clean energy, should be the leader in this area.

The Energy and Environment Task Force of the Massachusetts Bar Association has envisioned and is drafting a statewide pledge for law firms to articulate a unified voice to promote and practice energy efficient measures in our offices.

The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, with 19 Massachusetts mayors of the 592 committed U.S. mayors, and the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, with 36 Massachusetts colleges of the 406 committed American colleges, provide great examples of what could be accomplished with law firms.

Because Gov. Deval Patrick committed to make Massachusetts the “renewable energy center of the world” and recently signed on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Massachusetts provides fertile ground to be a leader in this area. Law firms can and should sign on to a climate change pledge, to expand it to other states and to help create and promote real solutions to the climate change crisis. However, the first solution belongs in our own offices, even as tenants, and that is where we should begin.

Many large American corporations have already implemented emission reduction programs to promote corporate social responsibility and have publicly encouraged the United States to adopt emission targets and timetables in an attempt to stay competitive internationally. They also seek to mitigate future liability and financial risk, and to encourage stable investments.

For example, since March 2007, 65 institutional investors, asset managers and corporations, including General Electric, Dupont, Duke Energy, Sun Microsystems, Merill Lynch, BP, Alcoa, Xerox Corp., NRG Energy Inc. and Caterpillar, have issued a “climate call to action” to the U.S. government to enact strong federal legislation to curb climate change. This U.S. Climate Action Partnership was originally initiated by 10 blue chip companies and four NGOs; today those companies generate a combined revenue of $2 trillion. Within a short time, USCAP membership doubled, and they included in their commitment a letter to President Bush, encouraging him to take steps to mitigate climate change.

Other industries are also following this path. The world’s largest computing companies recently formed a partnership with environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and reached out to other businesses to incorporate energy efficiencies into the billions of computers worldwide. Shareholders of Exxon Mobil Corp. and General Motors gained record support to establish goals to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Several companies, such as DuPont, have so far saved billions of dollars over the last 10 years by implementing energy-efficient measures.
The City of Cambridge launched a $70 million energy efficient program to conserve energy through the Cambridge Energy Alliance and more recently, Massachusetts set up a Clean Energy Stakeholders’ Roundtable to “accelerate the development of Massachusetts’ clean energy economy by engaging as many committed stakeholders as possible.” Both Republican and Democratic governors and mayors are similarly promoting clean energy and emission reduction initiatives. It is no longer a wise economic decision to sit back and watch, but an economic imperative to stay competitive.

Although American insurers were slow in responding to climate change, particularly compared to European insurers, they have come to recognize global warming as a major risk after hurricanes and other catastrophes in 2005 cost them more than $58 billion in claims.
According to Ceres (a coalition of investors, environmental groups and public interest organizations), American insurance companies have witnessed a fifteen-fold increase in policyholder losses from weather catastrophes in the past 30 years, surpassing growth in population, premiums and inflations over that time period.

The Ceres study, “Availability and Affordability of Insurance Under Climate Change: A Growing Challenge for the U.S.,” warns that if no actions are taken to confront climate change, enormous economic losses will ensue. Hopefully, insurance companies will also come up with strategic and creative ideas to mitigate climate change, other than merely raising rates and refusing to insure coastal communities.

The MBA’s Eco-Challenge initiative will be modeled after the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

Massachusetts law firms employ thousands of people and spend millions of dollars on energy, paper and services. If law firms can commit to a flexible initiative regarding renewable energy, emission offsets, conservation, energy efficiency and other creative ideas, law firms can decrease their environmental impact, help improve climate security, provide a good role model to other businesses and save money on energy, even if they rent office space.

The MBA seeks the commitment of other Massachusetts law firms so that we may begin drafting an initiative to make an impact. Even simple practices could have an impact and would initially save law firms thousands of dollars. These practices include:

• Encourage the use of both sides of the paper on lengthy documents;
• Give preference to vendors that use sustainable practices;
• Buy computers that are rated highly by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool;
• Purchase computer monitors and printers that have an energy efficient “standby” mode, consuming 90 percent less energy than regular mode;
• Convert most interoffice memoranda and reports to e-mail instead of paper;
• Encourage car pools with ride-share boards;
• Require that attorneys and staff turn off computers after work (businesses spend $1.7 billion in energy costs and cause 14.4 million tons of CO2 emissions from computers left on after work, according to a PC Energy Awareness Report;)
• Ensure that at least 90 percent of all paper and envelopes are at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content;
• Recycle at least 90 percent of unused office paper;
• Encourage mass transit by providing “commuter checks” to employees to purchase mass transit passes with pretax income;
• If utility costs are included in a law firm’s lease, work with the landlord to save energy;
• Encourage other tenants to get involved to lower energy costs which should be passed on to the tenants;
• Promote sustainable building practices used by the U.S. Green Building Council LEED program;
• Encourage cleaning staff to shut off all miscellaneous items in the offices, including lights, coffee pots and other equipment;
• Educate all employees about the program and recognize their participation;
• Create a record-keeping system to measure the program’s effectiveness.

The program would involve three steps in implementation:

Step One: Provide a framework – we will need law firms to draft commitment documents (lawyers are good at that!), a Web site, a strategy and a core group of leaders to run the program and provide a public face.
Step Two: Reach out to other Massachusetts law firms to publicize the pledge and get a large percentage on board.
Step Three: Implement a wider effort to get buy-in from a broader base of law firms with the majority of law firms in the commonwealth on board.

As anyone who picks up the newspaper knows, the trend toward climate change awareness and concern has gained momentum and will only increase with time. Massachusetts law firms must show strength and leadership in this arena. The earliest supporters of this initiative can reduce their energy costs, gain support from staff and clients, attract talents and encourage other businesses to follow suit. This commitment is not just the right thing to do, it is a strategic imperative for law firms today. As Kathleen Schatzberg, president of Cape Cod Community College noted, “We are in the middle of one of those rare moments when the right thing to do is also the economically smart thing to do.”