Jamie Raskin, Greenpeace, and the fight for a fair fight
Stop Slapping, once and for all
Jamie Raskin has been a stalwart progressive politician for decades, but most of America only came to know the Democratic congressman from Maryland after January 6, 2021, when he led the prosecution in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, and then sat on the bipartisan committee that investigated the insurrection. In both cases, a combination of historical gravity and lawyerly flair distinguished Raskin from many of his House colleagues.
He’s even more easily distinguishable at the moment, because, undergoing chemo-immunotherapy for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, he’s taken to wearing bandanas to hide his balding dome. Bruce Springsteen’s sideman Steven van Zandt sent Raskin five of his own bandanas to choose from; they give the sixty-one-year-old congressman a distinctly piratical air. Perhaps under the influence of that headgear, Raskin has grown saltier—last month, after many years of listening to Republican colleagues talk about “Democrat” plans and “Democrat” policies, he went to the House floor to call Colorado’s Lauren Boebert on the “grammatical error.” He said, “I just wanted to educate our distinguished colleagues that ‘Democrat’ is the noun. When you use it as an adjective, you say the ‘Democratic’ member or the ‘Democratic ‘solution,’” and that “after people are corrected several times and they continue to say it, it seems like it’s an act of incivility. As if every time we mentioned the other party, it just came out with a kind of political speech impediment like, ‘Oh, the Banana Republican Party.’ As if we were to say that every time we mentioned the ‘Banana Republican member,’” he added. “But we wouldn’t do that.”
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Raskin could doubtless amuse himself full-time taking on his MAGA coworkers. But he’s among the most serious legislators on Capitol Hill, and one long-running project—putting an end to so-called SLAPP suits—is particularly noteworthy now, because one of the most egregious examples of that kind of legal abuse is coming to a head. In fact, there will be a demonstration day after tomorrow in Oakland, outside the courthouse where Greenpeace will be trying to defend itself against a lawsuit designed to crimp its vital work.
SLAPP—strategic lawsuits against public participation—suits were named by George P. Pring, a law professor at the University of Denver, in the nineteen-eighties. They were, as he put it, a “new phenomenon” typically filed by commercial property developers, corporations, or fossil-fuel companies against citizens or N.G.O.s, and designed to “stop them from exercising their political rights or punish them for having done so.” Such suits, he wrote, “send a clear message: that there is a price for speaking out politically. The price is a multimillion-dollar lawsuit and the expenses, lost resources, and emotional stress such litigation brings.” As a judge wrote in a state court opinion a few years later, “Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.” Even Oprah’s been SLAPPed—by Texas cattlemen, for supposedly disparaging beef. But a current case is illustrative. Greenpeace, which was founded in 1971, is a global nonprofit network of campaigns devoted to “peaceful protest and creative communication.” Peaceful, but pugnacious and, at times, controversial, but it has fought some of the largest corporations on earth to keep forests intact and oil in the ground, and performed other useful tasks for the planet as a whole. And sometimes it’s been sued for its pains.
Greenpeace’s current trials began almost a decade ago, when a Canadian logging giant filed a three-hundred-million-dollar lawsuit against it and several other NGOs for, among other things, defamation and racketeering, employing a novel version of the RICO statute designed to take down mobsters. Most of those claims have been thrown ou in the course of the caset; just two of two hundred and ninety-six allegedly defamatory comments are still at issue. Greenpeace made some mistakes, as it admitted, but it’s not something you should be able to cripple an organization over.
Deepa Padmanhaba, Greenpeace’s general counsel said, “It’s hard to swallow that we have spent millions litigating two statements relating to a dispute over the boundaries of a Canadian mountain range.” Ebony Martin, Greenpeace’s new executive director, told me recently that the lawsuit had “injected turbulence” into the organization. “It’s drained our resources in terms of the millions of dollars we spend on our legal defense,” and, she added, “It makes us think twice about what fights we can show up in. We have to be careful not to show up in fights that could implicate other allies, so that they don’t get dragged in.” Most of all, she said, it robs the organization of its ability to focus: “Instead of developing strategies to stop fossil-fuel expansion and protect the planetary boundaries, we’re fighting for the survival of our organization.”
If Greenpeace makes it through the lawsuit, it still faces another one, brought by the company that built the Dakota Access pipeline. It sued Greenpeace on the ground that, as Padmanhaba put it, “We orchestrated the entire movement at Standing Rock and so it seeks to hold us liable for all of their alleged damage that resulted from the protests.” (The suit also says that other groups, including 350.org, which I founded, were part of this movement, though only Greenpeace, Earth First!, and BankTrack were taken to court.) In fact, Indigenous groups from across the continent did the main work at Standing Rock, gathering behind Lakota Sioux who were defending their reservation. As an article in the American Bar Association Journal put it, “a group of young Native Americans from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation started a movement that would galvanize world attention and bring together the largest meeting of Native Americans since the treaty councils of the 19th century.” The suit claims that “maximizing donations, not saving the environment, is Greenpeace’s true objective”; according to Padmanhaba, “the lawyers behind these suits believed their mere filing would shut us up and likely shut us down.” As Camille Fassett of the Freedom of the Press Foundation wrote, lawsuits like this represent “a kind of privatized censorship.”
This brings us back to Raskin. He has said that his cancer, while serious, is beatable, and that it hasn’t slowed him down. But there seems little chance that he’s not thinking about the whole course of his life. His father, Marcus Raskin, was a deputy national security adviser in the Kennedy Administration, before he left government to run the Institute for Policy Studies, the progressive think tank at the heart of the D.C. left in the nineteen-sixties. (When Raskin was a boy, his father was indicted alongside William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and Benjamin Spock, among others, for “conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft.”) I first knew Jamie Raskin in the early nineteen-eighties, at Harvard, where, as an undergraduate, he led demonstrations against the Reagan-era wars in Central America. He went on to Harvard Law and then, for twenty-five years, taught constitutional law at American University.
Though Raskin has now become, in some sense, a part of the system, he clearly has a fundamental understanding that the system only works when it can be challenged. The greatest invention of the twentieth century may have been the nonviolent social movement, which allowed the small and the many to stand up to the mighty and the few. Without some protection, though, civil society could wither—as it is in nations around the world, where governments are cracking down on peaceful protest movements. The community of NGOs are a vibrant check on an ever-less-equal society.
As Raskin told me last month, “One of the many things we have learned from the astonishing career of Donald Trump is how people with wealth and power can use litigation and courts to insulate their own corruption and avoid justice.” But, he continued, “Right-wing power doesn’t just use legal process to play defense. They use it offensively to attack environmentalists, unions, civil-rights groups and any citizen who stands up in society against their determination to impose their will on everyone else.”
The challenge that SLAPP suits represent is so obvious that thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-SLAPP statutes. But there is no federal legislation to rein in this kind of abuse, which is what Raskin is trying to remedy with legislation he introduced last September. As the nonprofit Public Participation Project explained, “a federal anti-SLAPP statute would close the loophole that lets retaliatory plaintiffs file state-based claims in jurisdictions with looser First Amendment protections or file federal claims in federal court. Rather than picking the easiest state to win in, plaintiffs would be forced to litigate in federal courts.”
Raskin correctly understands the challenge in terms of power. “The anti-SLAPP legislation is all about preventing right-wing corporate forces from using the law to exact revenge against their political adversaries and making them pay for their insubordination,” he said. If someone calls you names, cheeky wit is a good response; but you need stronger tools to stand up against the power that a corporate legal department can wield. We badly need Greenpeace—it’s a key part of the future—and a thousand other groups like it. Non-violent social movements stand alongside solar panels as the best inventions of the 20th century; don’t break them.
In other energy and climate news:
+You’ve simply got to watch this new commercial from the English campaign to stop UK banks from lending to fossil fuel companies. It’s funny as can be, and effective too—watch to the end.
+Amazing amazing amazing new art from the people at Fossil Free Media. Check out the posters!
+The nonprofit Oceana, in an important new report, offers President Biden some ways he can block new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, increase the number of wind turbines, and still meet the provisions of the Inflation Reducation Act
He can still prevent new oil and gas leases in 2024 and beyond through the five-year planning process, and he can also exceed his goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind development by 2030. The report also finds that offshore drilling remains dirty and dangerous, with significant safety shortcomings that will not prevent another disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Meanwhile, veteran climate campaigner Jeremy Symons broadens the analysis, with a spot-on essay about Biden’s “climate blind spot.”
As the planet overheats, Biden has sent the fire brigade through the front door to put out the fire. But he has left the back door wide open to oil and gas companies intent on simultaneously pouring fuel onto the fire.
+You might be interested in a piece I published today in Mother Jones. It’s not an examination of ‘permitting reform,’ but instead an attempt to hit on some general principles that might help people like me (old, white, used to working the system) decide whether to fight new infrastructure projects or acquiesce in them.
If you build, say, a solar farm now, it doesn’t need to be forever; in a generation, if we’ve actually started using less energy, or we’ve actually figured out cheap, safe fusion reactors, then the people who come after us can take it down. But if we delay, then we won’t get to that moment intact—we will break the planet, and those people who come after us will have lost their options (except the option to curse us out). Because climate change is the perfect example of a timed test: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has explained that unless we can cut emissions in half by 2030, even the tepid targets we set at Paris will go by the board.
And maybe you’d even like to another piece of mine that came out today in the New Yorker, this one only distantly related to climate and energy. It’s about the scary attempts of Christian nationalists to rework our nation, and argues that Christian non-nationalists might want to stand up to them.
In fact, Christ—the central focus of Christianity—is not a king, and not a fighter, but an advocate for the downtrodden. His ministry has no apparent interest in nationalism—indeed, welcoming strangers is one of its hallmarks. He is insistently nonviolent, and almost every gesture he makes is one of compassion. (His crime policy states that if someone takes your shirt, you should also give him your cloak.) His chief commandment is to love your neighbor. The four gospels are radical, rich, and deep, but they’re not complicated. If you read them and come away saying, “I’d like an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle,” you’ve read them wrong.
+We’re learning more about who’s bankrolling proposed drilling in the Timor Sea off Australia—largely Japanese and Korean banks. Don’t do this!
+A reminder from Bill Henderson that we need “both halves of the policy scissors,” working on fossil fuel demand and fossil fuel supply at the same time.
Both arms are complimentary: a (carbon budget based) schedule for winding down production would lead to much more time and money invested in innovation for getting to that post-carbon economy; and a speeded up energy transition could speed up the pace of the wind-down and therefor of emission reduction.
But to argue for only innovation and policies on the demand side to speed up the energy transition while not making the case for using both sides of the policy scissors is helping to ensure that we will fail to meet our 2030 imperative.
+The ‘atmospheric rivers’ that inundated California’s mountains with record snowpack are what happens on a planet where warmer air holds more water. Now that snow is going to melt and things may get a bit dicey in the valleys below
“We don’t actually know how the snow will melt,” said Jenny Fromm of the US army corps of engineers at a briefing on Tuesday. Small shifts in solar radiation and groundwater flow can make a big difference in outcomes.
“Climate change has had other plans for us these last ten years,” said David Rizzardo, manager of the California department of water resources hydrology section, explaining how the increase in outlier events has rendered statistics and models less reliable.
+Powerful essay from Chukwumerije Okereke, director of the Center for Climate Change and Development at Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Nigeria, who argues that Africa should not be a laboratory for solar geoengineering experimentation.
“One risk is that geoengineering will divert attention and investments from building renewable energy and other climate solutions in Africa. The continent has received only 2 percent of global investments in renewable energy in the last two decades, and the lack of access to capital is perhaps the biggest obstacle for countries that would like to cut down on fossil fuels.”
+Good Lord it’s been hot in Asia. Thailand just set a new all-time high temperature record of 114 F (and it’s not a dry heat…)
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