Pictured: Roger Worthington outside Knight Law Center in fall 2021
It was the birds in the toxic waste that sparked a turning point for UO donor Roger Worthington. When he was 16, his family moved to Houston, far from the forests, rivers and mountains of his childhood in Oregon. He then attended the University of Texas, Austin, and worked summers as a boilermaker’s helper at the Exxon refinery in Baytown, Texas.
“During my third summer, I saw a bird land on a puddle, drink, fall 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 then studied law at UT Austin and in 1990 started a Dallas firm specializing in asbestos litigation. Since then, he has helped mesothelioma patients and their families earn over $2.5 billion in recovery. His company also contributes to organizations advancing mesothelioma research and asbestos cancer treatments.
Worthington’s $600,000 donation to Oregon Law will launch a new effort to address another deadly environmental threat: climate change.
“This is an emergency,” Worthington says. “It’s not going to get better if we don’t do anything. And doing nothing is in itself an action. The courts must step in and prevent runaway global warming.
“Americans have a constitutional right to a stable climate system capable of supporting human life. It is the base of everything. To make the case for fighting global warming, we must make the case that excessive carbon polluters are violating our Constitutionally protected rights to life, liberty, and property.
Worthington’s donation will support the law school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center (ENR Center) and the work of Philip H. Knight Professor of Law Mary Christina Wood. Wood’s groundbreaking scholarship created the legal basis for Juliana v USA, a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by 21 young people, through the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, against the government federal in 2015.
“I don’t bring lawsuits,” Wood said. “I research the law and develop legal frameworks that serve as the basis for litigation. As Our Children’s Trust continues to fight for Youth in Court Day, their efforts are inspiring similar cases around the world. Some come out with decisive victories.
“As the first donation for this new initiative, Roger’s seed funding is transformational. It provides the support we need at this crucial time. The window of opportunity is closing. This support allows us to direct the legal analysis towards climate solutions.
Wood’s analysis draws on decades of research and scholarship on the doctrine of public trust, a legal principle whose roots go back to ancient Roman law. The principle obliges elected officials, as public trustees, to safeguard crucial ecology.
But as growing ecological crises make clear, she says, administrators have failed to protect the rights of present and future generations.
By developing this scholarship, Wood is developing new strategies to force climate recovery. While carbon emissions need to come down, she points out, we also need to clean the atmosphere of much of the legacy carbon that has already been released.
“Legacy carbon is driving the disasters we’re experiencing right now,” says Wood. “Megafires, floods, low snowpack, rising sea levels, hurricanes, droughts, all of these are fueled by current dangerous levels of carbon, not future carbon emissions. So we have to clean that up.
“Mary Wood is affiliated with the UO Environment initiative, which focuses the intellectual energy and work of faculty members, students, and community partners on the pursuit of a just and sustainable future through transdisciplinary research, teaching, and learning through experience. This is one of five from the UO Academic initiatives who work across disciplines, developing the next generation of leaders and problem solvers.
Imagine an overflowing bathtub, she says. Of course you turn off the tap. But then you remove the drain plug. Northwest ecosystems offer powerful natural tools for emptying the proverbial bathtub.
“The only methods currently available are nature’s own cleansing engines. By exploiting them, scientists believe we can tap into and sequester significant amounts of carbon. Oregon has these resource drivers for carbon reduction. Foremost among these would be the forest.
In addition to holding leaders accountable, she says making those responsible pay for an atmospheric cleaning effort is essential.
Consider an oil spill in the ocean, says Wood. You can see it and the obvious harm it causes. The government rushes to clean it up, then charges companies to pay for those efforts. The climate crisis was created by the release of carbon into the sky, she adds. But there’s no plan to clean it up and no accountability framework to charge for all that work.
“That’s what we hope to create,” says Wood. “A framework that the government can use as a logical way forward. If there was ever a time for law school to illuminate a promising direction for the law, it’s now.
Wood feels a personal urgency in his climate work: “I can’t look my children in the eye unless I do everything I can to ensure their survival in the future. This is the most important part of being a parent: protecting the children, yours, mine and all the children. I couldn’t be a parent and sit on that.
Worthington’s donation will help Wood and the ENR Center create a framework for atmospheric recovery plans for Northwest forests, using nature’s most powerful carbon sponges. Oregon’s agricultural areas, mangroves, wetlands and pastures also provide rich opportunities to tap into and sequester atmospheric carbon, Wood says. Long-term plans also include them.
“We are extremely grateful to Roger for his incredible vision,” says Heather Brinton, ENR Center Director. “This support will allow the ENR Center to focus on the potential of natural carbon solutions and atmospheric recovery in a way that has not been possible.
“Oregon Law has a long-standing focus on innovation in environmental law and policy for over 50 years. The entire university takes its responsibility to future generations very seriously. It’s part of the UO’s DNA. It’s who we are.
Brinton adds that this research enhances UO’s environmental 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 his colleagues at the ENR Center organize their plan into three distinct, but related parts. Wood describes them as three interlocking “gears” because they are all connected and do not follow a linear progression.
One of the gears contemplates natural resource damage litigation based on the liability of corporations that pollute the atmosphere. Another amenity is the “Sky Trust,” a financial institution tasked with managing and distributing funds obtained through this litigation to land managers willing to sequester carbon through innovative practices.
Finally, atmospheric recovery plans will provide ecological blueprints for resource conservation and management strategies that attract and sequester atmospheric carbon. Trust funds will provide economic incentives to landowners and managers to implement the plans.
The hope is that, just like Juliana against the United States, these plans will be replicated, personalized and applied, across the country and around the world. Worthington’s gift will set this gear in motion by emphasizing the role of the forests of the Northwest.
“There is incredible potential now during a climate emergency for Oregon’s forests to be at the forefront of a solution,” Worthington says. And it is inspired by the vision of Mary Wood and the ENR Centre.
“America has lost its competitive advantage because we are not investing in basic research. By donating to the university, we invest in research that could lead to valuable ideas, products and services. I am interested in the basic search for a legal model that we can apply to help solve global warming.
–Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 (English, Sociology), MA ’99 (Journalism)
Roger Worthington lives in Bend, Oregon. His law firm, Worthington & Caron, PC, located in San Pedro, Calif., represents clients exposed to asbestos who have malignant mesothelioma. He is the owner of Worthy Brewing in Bend and Indie Hops in Portland, as well as president of the nonprofit Worthy Garden Club.