PORTLAND, Oregon — Bill Hunter was drafted into the U.S. Army artillery during the Vietnam War, so his hearing is sketchy. But he keenly perceives God’s call to care for creation.
Hunter, a 77-year-old member of The Madeline Parish in Portland, didn’t always argue this side of the environmental debate. An attorney, he once represented coal companies and fought for Shell, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute.
Now he says the world must urgently move from fossil fuels. And he thinks oil and gas companies should pay a penalty for conspiring to hold back what they knew about global warming and for deceiving their customers and the public.
He has a detailed plan for such compensation that even a Vatican official likes.
Hunter wasn’t thunderstruck into a green conversion. He learned slowly what he now believes, all the time informed by a deep faith. Never a zealot on any side, he gravitates toward common sense and practical solutions.
After obtaining a law degree from the George Washington University Law School, Hunter landed a position in a leading antitrust law firm in the nation’s capital.
The young lawyer, then a Methodist, worked with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Hunter represented 23 senators in a proposed 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case out of Texas that would have approved some prayer in schools. His brief showed his proclivity for a moderate path, arguing that prayer after school hours or in study hall — not sponsored by the school — is constitutional.
The court refused to hear the case. But the following year, all the same arguments got incorporated into a bill passed in Congress.
In 1987, Hunter took a job in Kentucky and began working with big insurance, tobacco and coal. Often, he helped companies do the right thing and also avoid big liability.
He was on a team that finalized a 1998 settlement that saw tobacco companies pay more than $235 billion to states for health and safety. Tobacco marketing aimed at youths was banned.
Hunter thinks a similar framework could work to address climate change. While representing oil firms, he began to see that executives were holding back what they knew about global science and even had devised a strategy of questioning solid knowledge.
Hunter sees the falsehoods as an antitrust conspiracy and says that they have impeded companies that decades ago were trying to develop solar and wind power and electric vehicles. For nearly a decade, he has been building an antitrust case and preparing a settlement proposal that would have fossil fuel companies foot the bill for mitigating climate change.
The billions of dollars could be used immediately to reduce harmful emissions as well as build sea walls around Miami and New York City or preserve forests. If the companies switch to solar and wind, their payments would decrease. It’s a solution powered by market forces.
“Almost everyone is harmed by this,” Hunter said, listing possible plaintiffs. Winter sports enthusiasts the world over can’t ski or snowboard. Windmill and solar panel manufacturers were stymied for years. Various states and cities pay big dollars to keep people safe from the effects of climate change. Places such as the Santiam Canyon in Oregon burned more dramatically because of weather shifts.
“Our whole integrated common home is being attacked,” Hunter said, echoing a phrase from Pope Francis. “Maybe everyone on earth has a claim.”
Hunter said a settlement is preferable to a trial because with climate change, time is of the essence. “If we just keep a case going, only the lawyers will benefit,” he said. “A settlement is good for all, including the oil companies.”
Hunter sent his idea to Cardinal Peter Turkson, then the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The cardinal, Hunter said, liked the notion.
Hunter thinks the Vatican would be a good place for settlement talks following Pope Francis’ 2019 gathering of oil and gas company CEO’s and investors to encourage action on climate.
Alongside Hunter’s move toward climate justice, he felt more and more attracted to Catholicism.
One Christmas, during a trip to New York, he and wife Jenny went to St. Patrick Cathedral. Hunter was moved by New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s homily about Mary’s “yes” to God.
He listened to talks by St. John Paul II. Then he read Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on love. “It blew me away,” he said.
Upon moving to Portland, the Hunters explored the area by bicycle, riding past The Madeleine Church. Its beauty drew them in and the parishioners offered a warm welcome.
Meanwhile, Hunter downloaded “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on care for creation.
“Laudato Si” answered many of the questions I had about the church,” Hunter said. “It was about far more than the climate. It was about the interrelation of people with the earth and of people with each other.”
The Hunters became Catholic four years ago. They have marched for global climate reform and lead a Laudato Si’ group that prays, discusses and acts on the climate change.
“Jenny and I never expected we’d become Catholic,” Hunter said. “But in retrospect, I think we were drawn by the Holy Spirit for years and years.”
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Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.