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Global Warming: Here Come The Lawyers

It's the next wave of litigation -- after tobacco, guns, and junk food. Why Detroit, Big Oil, and utilities should worry

Two days after hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, F. Gerald Maples returned to his hometown of Pass Christian, Miss., to utter devastation. Most of his neighbors' houses were totally destroyed. His was in ruins. "It broke our hearts and absolutely changed our lives," he says. It also made Maples, a veteran asbestos plaintiffs' attorney in New Orleans, determined to fight back. "I couldn't stand by when my entire cultural history was destroyed by an event that could become more frequent because of global warming," he says.

So when friend and fellow trial lawyer Timothy W. Porter showed up to help with food and water, the two plotted a legal assault. Since Katrina's fury was powered by unusually warm Gulf water, and since such warmth could result from global warming, companies that have pumped the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide should be liable for damages, they figured. "To me, Katrina was a clear result of irresponsible behavior by the carbon-emissions corporate economy," says Maples. He recruited suddenly homeless neighbors like Ned Comer and filed a class action on their behalf in federal court in Gulfport, Miss. The defendants? Dozens of oil companies, utilities, and coal producers, from Chevron and Exxon Mobil (XOM ) to American Electric Power (AEP ) and Xcel Energy (XEL ). "This is a heartfelt effort," Maples says. "I don't want to leave this global warming mess to my children."