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Climate Hustle

2018 SkS Weekly Climate Change & Global Warming News Roundup #13

Posted on 31 March 2018 by John Hartz

A chronological listing of news articles posted on the Skeptical Science Facebook page during the past week. 

Editor's Pick

Stanford law and science experts discuss court case that could set precedent for climate change litigation

A closely watched federal trial pitting two cities against major oil companies has taken surprising and unorthodox turns. Stanford researchers examine the case, which could reshape the landscape of legal claims for climate change-related damages.

Oil Refinery

A federal trial pitting two cities against major oil companies could reshape the landscape of legal claims for climate change-related damages. (Image credit: Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons)

A judge in California took an unusual step in trying to untangle who is to blame for increasingly frequent droughts, floods and other climate change-related extreme weather. The case in San Francisco is weighing the question of whether climate change damages connected to the burning of oil are specifically the fault of the companies that extract and sell it.

The judge in People of the State of California v. BP P.L.C. et al. had both the plaintiffs – the cities of Oakland and San Francisco – and the defendants – several major oil companies – answer basic questions about climate change in a tutorial format. Counter to what some might have expected, an oil company lawyer largely confirmed the consensus science on the issue, but challenged the idea that oil companies should be held accountable.

Stanford Report spoke with Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Science, and Deborah Sivas, the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law, to get their perspectives on the climate tutorial, the science in question and the role of the judiciary in confronting climate change challenges. 

Stanford law and science experts discuss court case that could set precedent for climate change litigation by Rob Jordon, Stanford News, Mar 30, 2018 


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Comments

Comments 1 to 13:

  1. "From what I can tell, Chevron’s lawyer intimated that the oil companies’ defense will be that the science of anthropogenic causes was not clear until a few years ago and now that it is clear, the industry isn’t denying it......"

    The science was clear enough at least 20 years ago, so thats quite a few years. Apparently the oil companies own internal ducuments were telling them there was a problem back then.

    Covering up problems, or denying them, undermining science,  or being equivocal can be a case for claims of negligence. Just look at the history of tobacco litigation, and the millions awarded in damages.

    At least the oil companies have accepted the basics of the science. The oil companies are now in conflict with the extreme denialist groups like Christopher Moncton who deny basically everything. With some luck they will all start fighting each other, like the different groups of Orcs in Lord Of the Rings!

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  2. nigelj @ 1

    nigel, do you not think it is rather hypocritical of these cities to be suing oil companies for something that was absolutely critical to their populace?  One sardonic comment from someone else on another website asked: "Do you blame the ladies of the night for having customers?"

    Can we not get on with solving the problems rather than pointing fingers and suggesting that these oil companies are like the tobacco companies? 

    Surely any reasoning person understands the difference between the use of a drug for pleasure and the use of a resource for leveraging energy to make our society what it is today. 

    We have fossil fuels to thank for where they have brought us, we do not have cigarettes to thank for anything.

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  3. NorrisM @2

    "nigel, do you not think it is rather hypocritical of these cities to be suing oil companies for something that was absolutely critical to their populace? "

    No I don't.

    "Can we not get on with solving the problems rather than pointing fingers and suggesting that these oil companies are like the tobacco companies? "

    Perhaps if the oil companies had actually done something to help solve the problems, but they haven't done anything, apart from a little bit of token feel good window dressing. The oil companies have resisted doing anything meaningful, so hence people resort to lawsuits.

    "Surely any reasoning person understands the difference between the use of a drug for pleasure and the use of a resource for leveraging energy to make our society what it is today."

    Yes, but its not a relavant difference in this instance. The oil companies downplayed a risk and allegedly hid risk, and as a lawyer you know perfectly well that is arguably a tort of negligence. It doesn't matter what the product is, and whether its addictive or not, or has had some use, provided it has the potential to cause harm. People are entitled to proper disclosure of information that can materially affect them.  This is all established law.

    "We have fossil fuels to thank for where they have brought us, we do not have cigarettes to thank for anything."

    Spurious argument  because benefits dont excuse allegedly hiding risks, and this is established law with any products for example pharmaceutical drugs. This is why they are federally regulated. The argument is  wrong anyway on another level, because smokers enjoy their product and get something out of it.

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  4. nigelj@3

    Your response to the spurious claim: "We have fossil fuels to thank for where they have brought us, we do not have cigarettes to thank for anything.", should be expanded.

    It is also spurious because there is no proof that fossil fuel burning has 'directly resulted in helpful sustainable developments that only would have developed because people burned fossil fuels'.

    The root related understanding is that systems that develop unsustainable activities that are harmful to others can be seen to also develop resistance to being corrected. And those systems need to be corrected to become systems that promote the development of sustainable improvements for all of humanity (systems that push to achieve, and improve, all of the Sustainable Development Goals). And the portion of the population that resists correction are understandably 'the core system problem'.

    A related understanding is that 'legal' does not mean 'ethical or helpful or acceptable'. There are undeniably 'Bad Laws' and 'Lousy selective enforcement of laws'. That is an important part of the required increased awareness and better understanding that will develop a beneficial difference for the future of humanity.

    And increasing awareness that popularity and profitability have proven to be lousy measures of acceptability, and have been detrimental to ethics and helpfulness, is also important to limit the damaging popularity of beliefs that good things will develop if people are freer to believe what they want and do as their please, the creed of the promoters/excusers of the 'Neoliberal Free-for-all system that will only really benefit the few Biggest Winners'.

    Naomi Klein's "No is not Enough" is a very enlightening read (borrow it from a library if you can). It is a helpful supplement to understanding the challenges of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

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  5. Related to my comment@4,

    It is very difficult to provide clear conclusive proof of sustainable helpful developments occurring because people were burning fossil fuels, there being no alternative way that those developments could have occurred.

    It is easy to find clear cases where the ability to burn fossil fuels, and the associated efforts to prolong or increase the ability to personally benefit from those undeniably unsustainable and harmful activities, has delayed the development of sustainable helpful improvements.

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  6. nigelj @ 3

    "The oil companies have resisted doing anything meaningful, so hence people resort to lawsuits."

    Leaving aside matters of "causation" and what damages have been suffered by any failure of oil companies to "come clean" on what they really thought, specifically what would you have expected them to do?

    If all you are going to say is that they should have been more honest about their concerns what would this have achieved? 

    Throughout this period, we have had IPCC assessments telling the world as to what the latest science was and politicians (at all levels of government) have listened and done effectively nothing with a few exceptions such as California.  

    So what damages did these cities suffer by not being told by the oil companies that they did have some concerns that had been raised in the public domain by the IPCC and other persons?

    And even today, we still have disagreements as to the relative contributions of AGW and natural causes for our changing climate and how this will impact sea levels. 

    The oil companies sold us something that we not only wanted but needed.  Now they are to pay us for having willingly purchased a product from them? 

    Any idea as to what they should pay for? 

    Even if you were to get past "causation" you still have a major hurdle that the damages were to remote.  In other words, the damages were caused by other factors and cannot be pinned on the oil companies.

    But the US is a wacky place.  There was a major publicly-traded funeral service company based in Vancouver that was consolidating "mom and pop" funeral companies that was bankrupted by a billion dollar jury judgment in Missouri relating to the purchase of one funeral parlour in that state. 

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  7. Norrism:

    Oil companies lied to the public and funded disinformation campaigns about the dangers they knew of.  They have caused billions of dollars of damage since they kept action from being taken to mitigate the harm.  They are now being sued for the damage thay caused by their deliberate disinformation campaign.  

    If you call out fire in a movie theatre and someone is trampled to death in a  stampede to the exits, you are responsible for the death.  If you tell people there is no fire when you know there is a fire you are responsible for the death of those trapped because they stayed when they could have escaped.  Oil companies knew there was a fire and lied when they supported deniers who said there was no fire.  They will have a hard time denying that they funded disinformation since several deniers filed briefs with the court and declared that they were paid by Exxon. 

    Additional cases are being investigated because they lied to their stockholders about the likely future value of their fossil holdings in the ground.  If fossil fuels are limited, as expected to control AGW, their holdings will be worth less.  Fossil companies knew their assets were likely to be stranded but told stockholders they were unlikely to be stranded.  It is fraud to lie to stockholders.

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  8. michael:

    "Additional cases are being investigated because they lied to their stockholders about the likely future value of their fossil holdings in the ground. "

    I wonder if the oil companies would have the nerve to defend themselves against such a lawsuit by arguing that their disinformation campaigns were so successful that they actually preserved shareholder value far above what would have been realized if action to reduce climate change had begun in earnest 30 years ago.

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  9. NorrisM @6

    I would have expected the oil companies to be open with the public about what their own internal science was saying, and so also agree with the IPCC findings. This is hard I know, but the oil companies allegedly knew the risks and so had an established  legal duty to acknowledge them unequivocally. The law doesn't make exceptions for products that have benefits, to my knowledge.

    Instead they hid things from the public and got caught, and funded deniers like the Heartland Institute. You pay a price for this sort of corporate behaviour.

    Damages will be based on the fact that politicians and the public 'may' have made completely different choices regarding climate change if oil companies had made proper disclosure, and with potentially robust and full mitigation. The plaintiffs do not have to prove they 'would' have made different choices, or what level of mitigation they would have used, because such a thing is impossible to prove either way. Tobacco litigation has shown us these same principles in that it only had to show the smoker may have chosen to give up.

    Damages will be quantified on physical damage caused on the basis of how much damage full mitigation would have prevented. Its complicated to work out but the causative link is there. There may also be punative damages. Again the same principles as tobacco litigation are likely to apply.

    What the IPCC said is irrelevant. Again tobacco litigation showed that what counted was what tobacco companies didn't say, regardless of what the surgeon general said.

    If the oil companies had made full disclosure, the entire denialist movement and influence of fossil fuel companies on politicians would all have probably been much weaker. 

    I also reinforce the point that OPOF makes we cannot assume that oil was the only alternative humanity ever had. Without oil, better progress may have been made with natural forms of energy or nuclear or fission power.

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  10. Bob Loblaw,

    You propose an interesting defense.  I do not know the answer. It seems to me that they could argue they preserved value for shareholders 10 years ago but current shareholders will be left holding the bag.  Those left holding the bag get to sue.

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  11. Bob Loblow,  well they might try anything, but if the dissinformation campaigns are shown to be fraudulent, I dont think you can use law breaking as a defence.

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  12. nigelj:

    Well, that's the conundrum. Their strongest defence agains a lawsuit that claims they failed to preserve shareholder value is to show how their actions preserved shareholder value. But that same defence is pretty much an admission of guilt that they preserved shareholder value at the expense of everyone else, even though they knew the damage it would cause.

    Location[self]= insert[between(rock,hard place)]

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  13. The 'we only just recently figured it out' defence seems to fail both on the grounds that A: it is false and B: several of the denier groups they fund filed amicus briefs insisting it is all a big fraud with the court on this case... so even if it were true that we only figured global warming out a few years ago, the judge is literally holding proof in his hands that they are still funding misinformation to the contrary.

    On the 'shareholder value' front... there is more to it than that. Lying to your shareholders, even if doing so will make them more money, prevents them from making properly informed decisions. It is illegal regardless of the financial outcome... and again, the admission of the truths of climate science in this case does not match well with some dismissive statements these companies have made just in the last year.

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