Pictured: Roger Worthington, outside the Knight Law Center in Fall 2021
Roger Worthington’s turning point was when he saw birds in toxic waste. When he was 16 years old, his family moved to Houston—far from the forests, rivers, and mountains of his Oregon childhood. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and worked summers at the Exxon refinery, Baytown, Texas as a boilermaker assistant.
“During my third summer, I saw a bird land on a puddle, take a drink, fall over, and die. I said ‘OK, that’s it.’ I quit and started volunteering for a law firm working on agent orange litigation. That’s when I decided to become a lawyer.”
Worthington studied law at UT Austin, and in 1990, he founded a Dallas firm that specialized in asbestos litigation. Since then, he’s helped mesothelioma patients and their families win more than $2.5 billion in recoveries. His company also contributes to mesothelioma research, and asbestos cancer treatment.
Worthington’s $600,000 gift to Oregon Law will launch a new effort to address another lethal environmental threat: climate change.
“This is an emergency,” says Worthington. “It’s not going to get better if we do nothing. Doing nothing is an action in itself. The courts need to intervene to prevent runaway global warming.
“Americans have a constitutional right to a stable climate system that’s capable of supporting human life. That’s the bedrock of everything. To support global warming mitigation, we must argue that excessive carbon polluters are violating rights to life and liberty as well as property, as outlined in our Constitution.
Worthington’s gift will support the law school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center (ENR Centerand the work Mary Christina WoodPhilip H. Knight Professor and Law. Wood’s groundbreaking scholarship created the legal foundation for Juliana v. US, a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by 21 youth, through the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, against the federal government in 2015.
“I don’t bring lawsuits,” says Wood. “I research the law and develop legal frameworks that serve as a foundation for litigation. As Our Children’s Trust continues fighting for the youths’ day in court, their efforts are inspiring similar cases around the world. Some are coming out with decisive wins.
“As the first gift for this new initiative, Roger’s seed funding is transformational. It provides the support we need in this critical time. The window of opportunity is closing fast. This support allows us to turn legal analysis toward climate solutions.”
Wood’s analysis builds on decades of research and scholarship on the public trust doctrine, a legal principle with roots dating back to ancient Roman law. As public trustees, elected officials are bound to protect critical ecology.
However, the growing ecological crises are proving that trustees have failed protect the rights of current and future generations.
Wood is expanding on this scholarship and developing new strategies for climate recovery. While carbon emissions need to go down, she points out, we also need to scrub the atmosphere of much of the legacy carbon that’s already been released.
“Legacy carbon is driving the catastrophes we’re experiencing right now,” says Wood. “Megafires, floods, low snowpack, rising sea levels, hurricanes, drought—all those are fueled by present dangerous levels of carbon, not future carbon emissions. That is why we must clean it up.
Mary Wood is affiliated with the UO’s Environment InitiativeThe focuses the intellectual energy of faculty members, students, and community partners on working towards a just, livable future through transdisciplinary research and teaching. It is one of the UO’s five Academic InitiativesThey work across disciplines, thereby developing the next generation leaders and problem solvers.
She says, “Imagine a bathtub overflowing.” You turn off the spigot. Then you take out the drainplug. The Northwest ecosystems have powerful natural tools that can drain the tub.
“The only methods currently available are nature’s own engines of cleanup. Scientists believe we can reduce and sequester significant amounts carbon by harnessing them. Oregon has these resources for carbon drawdown. Foremost among those would be the forest.”
She believes it is crucial to hold leaders accountable and make those responsible for an atmosphere cleanup effort pay.
Wood suggests that you think of an oil spillage in the ocean. You can see it—and the obvious harm it causes. The government rushes clean it up and then charges corporations to cover the costs. She adds that the climate crisis was caused by the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. But there’s no plan for cleaning it up and no framework of liability to charge for all that work.
“That’s what we hope to create,” says Wood. “A framework that government can use as a logical way to proceed. If there ever was a time for the law school to illuminate a promising direction for the law, it is now.”
Wood feels personal urgency in her climate work: “I can’t look my kids in the eye unless I’m doing all I can to secure their survival in the future. It’s the primordial part of being a parent: protecting children—yours, mine, and all children. I couldn’t be a parent and sit this out.”
Worthington’s gift will help Wood and the ENR Center create a framework for atmospheric recovery plans for Northwest forests, putting nature’s most powerful carbon sponges to use. Oregon’s agricultural areas, mangroves, wetlands, and grazing lands also offer rich opportunities to draw down and sequester atmospheric carbon, says Wood. These are also important for long-term plans.
“We’re tremendously grateful to Roger for his incredible vision,” says Heather Brinton, director of the ENR Center. “This support will enable the ENR Center to focus on the potential for natural carbon solutions and atmospheric recovery in ways that haven’t been possible.
“Oregon Law has a longstanding focus on innovation in environmental law and policy that spans more than 50 years. Our responsibility to future generations is something that the entire university takes very seriously. It’s part of the UO’s DNA. It’s who we are.”
Brinton adds that this research enhances the UO’s Environment Initiative, a campus-wide effort to focus on the role of higher education in creating a just and livable future—one of five such academic initiatives that unite different disciplines to develop the next generation of leaders and problem solvers.
Wood and her colleagues from the ENR Center divide their plan into three parts, which are related but distinct. Wood describes them as three interlocking “gears,” because they are all connected and don’t follow a linear progression.
One of the gears envisages natural resource damage litigation that is based on liability for companies polluting the atmosphere. Another gear is the “Sky Trust,” a financial institution to manage and distribute funds obtained through that litigation to land managers willing to sequester carbon through innovative practices.
Atmospheric recovery plans will also provide ecological blueprints for resource management strategies and conservation strategies that draw down and sequester atmosphere carbon. The trust will provide financial incentives for landowners to implement the plans.
The hope is that—just like Juliana v. US—these blueprints will be replicated, customized, and applied, across the nation and around the world. Worthington’s gift will put this gear into motion with a focus on the role of Northwest forests.
“There’s amazing potential now during a climate emergency for Oregon’s forests to be at the forefront of a solution,” says Worthington. And he’s inspired by the vision of Mary Wood and the ENR Center.
“America has been losing its competitive edge because we don’t invest in basic research. By donating to the university, we’re investing in research that could lead to valuable ideas, products, and services. I’m interested in basic research of a legal model that we can apply to help solve global warming.”
–Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 (English, sociology), MA ’99 (journalism)
Roger Worthington is a resident of Bend, Oregon. His law firm, Worthington & Caron, PC, located in San Pedro, California, represents clients exposed to asbestos who have malignant mesothelioma. He’s the owner of Worthy Brewing in Bend and Indie Hops in Portland, as well as president of the non-profit Worthy Garden Club.