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Climate change and in-house counsel (Linda DiSantis, EthicsLINC)

By co-blogger Linda DiSantis: As an attorney for a corporation, you may be facing questions relating to what the company ought to do about the issue of climate change. In the Sept. 14, 2007 Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, is profiled regarding his push to change GE by responding to global warming and seeking business opportunities through his “eco-imagination” program. One of Mr. Immelt’s initiatives, in response to shareholder pressure, was to inventory the company’s carbon emissions. He put Steve Ramsey, the company’s chief regulatory attorney, in charge of this process. The WSJ reports that Mr. Ramsey was a “skeptic” of the push by the CEO, and although he was a former EPA lawyer, apparently had not yet bought into the notion that climate change was real issue. Another interesting push by Mr. Immelt is to encourage the federal government to begin to regulate carbon emissions, stating that he believed it was better to be part of the conversation rather than reacting to whatever the government might do on its own. He had managed to convince a number of other CEOs to join him in this effort.

As a general counsel or in house regulatory lawyer who spends time sparring with regulators, all this attention to cooperation and innovation related to carbon and climate change might strike you as a bad idea. In my experience as in-house environmental attorney who on occasion tried to deal with government regulators in an innovative way, I found that the end result of that process was often disappointing – that the government always wanted to preserve its “big stick,” and could not bring itself to trust industry to “do the right thing.” In these days of remarkable change in how companies are stepping up to their global responsibilities, it will be important for attorneys to understand the pitfalls (as we always do well), but also embrace the opportunity for innovation and a new approach that might bring real opportunity to our companies.