Richmond law firm Williams Mullen's Downtown Richmond office. (Style Weekly)

By Kim Jemaine

In old Richmond, the downtown law firms were regarded by many as the paragon of virtue, a place for a respectable career and collegial praise. But something has changed, and “Exhibit A” is the shocking conflict of interest displayed by Williams Mullen in both simultaneously suing the state to stop action on carbon pollution and representing clients like Facebook, Lyft and Altria who want and advocate for bold action on climate change.

This law firm’s effort to keep Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative comes on the heels of a legislative session in which the commonwealth took long overdue steps toward combating the climate crisis.

For example, the newly enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act includes tangible, actionable implications that will reduce emissions in the energy sector by 30 percent over the next 10 years. Its passage marks a turning point where addressing climate change in Virginia has become a bipartisan issue — one on which leaders at the legislative and executive branches agree with environmental and business leaders that action is needed to protect people and property from a changing climate.

Likewise, those same voices support joining RGGI because it will increase the commonwealth’s traction in our climate fight, providing a platform on which to further drive down emissions, while driving down costs, creating jobs and boosting local economies.

Driving down emissions is important to consumers and big businesses alike. According to new research just out from George Mason University, 78 percent of Virginians are interested in how global warming is impacting their local community. For businesses, it’s not just because they care about the environment — it’s because they are seeing economic implications from climate-change-induced events like hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Science and data are increasingly fueling a solid business case for addressing climate change because it’s impacting corporate bottom lines. As a result, companies are making internal commitments to be a part of the solution.

One such company building a business case to combat climate change — and Williams Mullen’s client in Virginia — Facebook, has set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals. Just last month, Facebook announced a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2030 — and they will have reduced to 75 percent below 2017 levels by the end of this year. Facebook is already investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and they’ve even launched a new Climate Science Information Center to connect people to factual and up-to-date climate information. Is Facebook knowingly employing a firm that is leading the fight to undermine their climate efforts?

Altria, with its huge Richmond presence, is another Williams Mullen client. Altria has set ambitious emissions reduction goals, and strengthened those targets again this year. They’re committed to sourcing operations with 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent below 2017 standards by 2030. Is Altria knowingly employing a firm that is leading the fight to undermine their climate efforts?

CVS Health is also on the Williams Mullen client roster. They’re aiming to reduce emissions by 26 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. They’ve directed their suppliers to join in identifying emissions reduction opportunities, targeting a goal of 70 percent of suppliers having set their own goals by 2023. Is CVS knowingly employing a firm that is leading the fight to undermine their climate efforts?

Lyft employs Williams Mullen, too. They became carbon neutral in 2018, and are working toward powering 100 percent of its energy needs with renewables. Lyft has been active at all levels of government to accelerate transportation electrification efforts across the country. Surely Lyft isn’t knowingly employing a firm that is leading the fight to undermine their climate efforts?

We shouldn’t be surprised that the for-profit firm is willing to represent any entity capable of paying the right price for their services, but we cannot accept this hypocrisy as business-as-usual. It’s up to the clients — Facebook, Altria, CVS Health, Lyft, and others — to make choices that align with the emissions standards and goals they’ve set for themselves, their employees and their suppliers. The climate crisis and the present moment require that our words and actions align.

Williams Mullen clients who have bold climate goals need to decide if they’re willing to be represented by a firm that is working in complete opposition to their core beliefs. We are calling on these groups to put their money where their mouth is. Virginia has come together in an unprecedented way to tackle climate change, including passing the VCEA and agreeing to join RGGI. We cannot allow a downtown law firm that lets dollars determine their values to impede our work toward achieving a clean energy future in the commonwealth.

Kim Jemaine is Virginia director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.