Wednesday, Feb. 8, Assistant Dean of Environmental Law Studies at George Washington University Law School Professor Randall S. Abate presented a guest lecture titled “Climate-Washing, Corporate Accountability and Human Rights” at the College of William and Mary Law School.
Abate previously served as the inaugural Rechnitz Family and Urban Coast Institute Endowed Chair in Marine and Environmental Law and Policy and a Professor in the department of political science and sociology at Monmouth University from 2018 to 2022. Before his time at Monmouth, Abate was a full-time faculty member at six law schools in the U.S., he most recently was a Professor of Law from 2009-2018 and an Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 2017 at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law in Orlando, Florida.
Abate has taught courses on climate change law and justice, domestic and international environmental law, ocean and coastal law, torts, constitutional law and animal law. He has also delivered lectures and presentations on both environmental and animal law topics around the world.
Harlin Oh J.D. ’23 introduced Dean Abate.
“He’s got almost 30 years of experience teaching those courses, and has published countless articles and books addressing domestic and global environmental law governance, recently,” Oh said.
In May and June of 2022, before beginning his time at George Washington University Law School, Abate led a four-week lecture series tour in five countries, where he delivered lectures and presentations to students and professors on climate change law and justice, ocean governance and connections between animal law and environmental law.
Abate began his lecture at the law school by introducing the topic of “climate-washing,” and informed attendants that his lecture is based on an upcoming piece for the Intercultural Human Rights Law Review hosted by St. Thomas Law School.
“So, let’s start with how we define this idea of climate-washing,” Abate said. “These three steps really help map out what’s the issue here. So, these suits are brought against both governmental and private sector entities. It’s important to be aware of that. And they’re proceeding full force against both communities in the U.S. and around the world. This presentation, this article, is focusing exclusively on the private sector side. But that’s not to suggest that there’s not this ambitious and ongoing line of cases against governmental entities as well.”
Abate summarized climate-washing litigation in three sectors. Climate-washing litigation seeks to hold governmental or private sector entities accountable for their actions, ensure products are not falsely marketed in terms of their climate impact and address false or misleading claims regarding efforts for climate change.
“Corporations are not subject to targets and goals regarding climate change reduction, greenhouse gas reduction efforts,” Abate said. “So, certainty it’s not surprising that some of their language about how well they’re doing on the path towards meeting their targets and goals is a form of greenwashing.”
‘In the late ’80s, which was really kind of the explosion of sustainable development as a paradigm, as a way of thinking about how we operate in all we do in the world, the notion of greenwashing started to take hold.”
In his upcoming article, Abate hopes to separate the terms “greenwashing” and “climate-washing,” which have previously been used interchangeably.
“When we think about climate change in Washington, it traces its roots to what the private sector has been doing for a long time to try and deceive the public once we really became more savvy as consumers,” Abate said. “In the late ’80s, which was really kind of the explosion of sustainable development as a paradigm, as a way of thinking about how we operate in all we do in the world, the notion of greenwashing started to take hold. The corporate sector was aware that we have this new generation of very green minded customers, and so they wanted to play into their interest to buy green, to act green. And so this idea of greenwashing came about.”
Abate also discussed the second phase of greenwashing, which is known as humane-washing.
“Humane-washing is efforts by purveyors of animal products that want to assure the public that’s buying the goods, that these products were made in a humane manner, that you can feel good about eating this chicken product because it was humanely raised chickens, that it wasn’t the normally abused, abusively raised chickens. So they said it and it turned out to be flat out lies,” Abate said.
Companies such as Tyson and Perdue took part in marketing their meat products as humanely raised, though there was no evidence of a difference between the humane raising process and regular abusive processes. The collective efforts of individuals and activist groups resulted in companies being held accountable for their falsehoods.
Today, significant efforts to confront corporations on a wider sphere in the context of climate change impacts.
“Here we are now in a new phase with climate change being front and center on everyone’s mind,” Abate said. “And ultimately, there’s all kinds of cases going on around the nation, around the world, seeking to hold private sector entities, primarily the fossil fuel industry, accountable for their contributions to climate change. And so there’s a big line of cases involving states, cities, counties suing a huge range of multinational corporations.”
Abate discussed the connection between human rights and the impacts of climate change, especially with regard to the rise in young people worldwide making an effort to fight for better regulation of climate impact.
“The government chooses not to regulate climate change or chooses not to regulate climate change with sufficient ambition and teenagers around the world are suing their governments and waiting to get the government to do a better job regulating climate change.”
Specifically, Abate mentioned Juliana v. United States of America, a case filed in 2015 by 21 youth plaintiffs represented by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust. The case is filed on the grounds of the assertion that the government has engaged in a knowing violation of the youths’ rights of life, liberty and property and the government’s duty to protect the nation’s public grounds. As of May 2022, the case is awaiting a ruling in the district court on the plaintiff’s motion to amend their formal complaint.
“The government chooses not to regulate climate change or chooses not to regulate climate change with sufficient ambition and teenagers around the world are suing their governments and waiting to get the government to do a better job regulating climate change,” Abate said. “In part, anyway, it’s a human rights based theory because their futures are being stolen and that’s very much a human rights grounded type of claim that’s being alleged in these cases.”
Abate closed the discussion by affirming the connection between climate change legislation and human rights, specifically in the context of climate-washing.
“If we look at climate-washing as similar to a decision not to regulate or a decision to act in a way that’s bad, that has consequences, climate-washing is really just another way of engaging in action or inaction on climate change that has dangerous human rights implications,” Abate said.
Symposium Editor for the “William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review” Cameron Krause J.D. ‘23 helped organize the event and was pleased by Abate’s lecture.
“I thought that Dean Abate’s talk was fantastic,” Krause wrote to The Flat Hat. “It’s an interesting subject and area of the law that we are getting to see develop in real time. And it covers a topic that I think a lot of people here at William and Mary are somewhat familiar with and have opinions on.”
By monitoring companies and verifying their actions in order to enforce compliance, Abate believes pre-existing measures that are already applied to environmental contexts can be used to hold industries accountable in the future.
“We have existing principles at the international level governing corporate behavior on a global level and the implications on human rights from that behavior,” Abate said. “We’ve got the U.N. guiding principles that address this and the pursuance of those principles new guidelines on climate change, human rights and business. And both of these are leverage points for making an argument that extending accountability into human rights about how these governments act, and fail to act, is really the next stage, and hopefully one that will come very soon in making governments accountable for ultimately impact on the environment and impact on human rights.”