Now here's an unexpected beneficiary of the building consensus regarding global warming: the plaintiffs' bar.

Known to its detractors as Trial Lawyers, Inc., the plaintiffs' bar makes serious bucks by launching mass tort and class action suits. The bigger the damages, the bigger the contingency fees, so high-profile harm is how these litigation firms make hay -- and it doesn't get much more high-profile than climate change.

Companies are potentially vulnerable to shareholder lawsuits if they either fail to properly disclose the risk of potential climate change regulations, or to demonstrate efforts to mitigate those risks. The Corporate Library, a governance watchdog, analyzed two dozen "carbon-intensive" companies in a recent study, and the results varied widely.

I was pretty surprised to see emitter-extraordinaire American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) earning top marks in both disclosure and governance categories. Back in June, the company's dung deal struck me as downright myopic. But just as this company knows enough to cover waste lagoons in order to reap the resulting carbon credits, so, too, does it know to cover its rear end in order to avoid future litigation.

Other companies earning high marks include Kimberly Clark (NYSE:KMB), 3M (NYSE:MMM), and Southern Company (NYSE:SO). Southern, the parent company of several southeastern electric utilities, has an entire section in its annual 10-K filing dedicated to "Global Climate Issues." It looks as though those fat dividends will keep falling in investors' pockets, rather than in those of the trial lawyers.

Two energy-services firms and one railroad shared a three-way tie for dead last. I would be curious to know what made Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE:BNI) particularly egregious among its peers. After a quick scan, I see that its environmental disclosures seem to mirror those of Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC). Then again, I wasn't commissioned to write up the in-depth report, which will set you back $495 if you want to read it in full.

Even if you're no fan of Al Gore, consider taking a few minutes to assess whether the "carbon-intensive" companies in your portfolio are one step ahead of the plaintiffs' bar. The alternative is to just hope your company has great lawyers.

3M is an Inside Value selection. Southern is an Income Investor pick. Both newsletters offer a 30-day free trial. Trial, get it?

Fool contributor Toby Shute cohabitates with a future lawyer and doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy doesn't cover climate-change issues, per se, but it does help to clear the air.