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In court, Big Oil rejected climate denial

Posted on 27 March 2018 by dana1981

In a California court case this week, Judge William Alsup asked the two sides to provide him a climate science tutorial.

The plaintiffs are the coastal cities of San Francisco and Oakland. They’re suing five major oil companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP) to pay for the cities’ costs to cope with the sea level rise caused by global warming. Chevron’s lawyer presented the science for the defense, and most notably, began by explicitly accepting the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, saying:

From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change

Deniers still want to debate the science of climate change

Deniers filed briefs in support of the defense, but they contradicted Chevron’s tutorial. For example, one brief filed by a group led by Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon began by stating, “The “consensus” about global warming is 0.3%, not 97%” (this is obviously incorrect). Another brief filed by William HapperSteve Koonin, and Richard Lindzen argued that “It is not possible to tell how much of the modest recent warming can be ascribed to human influences.” Chevron and the IPCC disagree.

While it’s normal for climate deniers to deny the 97% expert consensus that humans are driving global warming, those submitting briefs on behalf of Big Oil were clearly not on the same page as its lawyer. Perhaps the oil companies should have sent the deniers a memo to stay out of this case. Clearly these groups are accustomed to denying climate science on the oil industry’s behalf.

Two-faced oil companies

The judge mandated that those submitting briefs detail their funding sources, and they listed a litany of oil companies and fossil fuel-funded think tanks. Among those listed by Monckton and Soon’s group were ExxonMobil, the Heartland Institute, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. Among those listed by Happer, Koonin, and Lindzen were the Heritage FoundationPeabody Coal, the Cato Institute, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

It’s a perfect example of the oil industry’s two-faced behavior. For decades their own scientists quietly published peer-reviewed research concluding that humans are causing global warming. That was the face we saw from Chevron’s lawyer. But at the same time, oil companies were funding contrarian scientists and think tanks to spread denial and doubt about that same science. That was the face revealed in the denier briefs.


 What #ExxonKnew vs what #ExxonDid. Illustration: John Cook,

Chevron’s lawyer modified the tobacco playbook

Although they accept the expert climate consensus, the oil companies obviously don’t want to be held liable for the costs of the climate damages their products cause. In addition to emphasizing and exaggerating climate science uncertainties, Chevron’s lawyer noted that the IPCC states that climate change is caused “largely by economic and population growth,” not fossil fuel extraction. In other words, the oil industry’s strategy is to argue that individual climate impacts are difficult to pin down, and in any case, the blame lies not with the producers, but with the consumers of their products. It’s eerily similar to an argument made by tobacco industry lawyers:

Those who decide to start smoking or continue smoking should assume responsibility for a choice they make — because no one can say they don’t know about the dangers associated with smoking

In short, the industry lawyers argue that the consequences are the fault of smokers and energy consumers, not the companies producing the dangerous products.

That argument didn’t work for the tobacco industry in the past, because they knew of the health risks associated with consuming their products, yet engaged in campaign to manufacture doubt to convince people to keep smoking. Ultimately, a federal judge found the tobacco industry guilty of fraud to further a conspiracy to deceive the American public about the dangers of their products.

It’s a more difficult case to make against the oil industry because their scientists published climate research in peer-reviewed journals available to the public, and their campaign to manufacture doubt about human-caused climate change was waged through intermediaries. They funded think tanks to do their dirty work, as we saw in the denier briefs.

Tobacco industry executives continued publicly denying their own scientists’ findings to the very end, even under oath. 

On April 14, 1994, the presidents and CEOs of the seven largest American tobacco companies were subpoenaed to testify before Rep. Henry Waxman’s House committee.

The oil industry has modified the tobacco playbook by accepting the scientific consensus. And Chevron’s lawyer argued that as a complex global problem, any climate remedies should be addressed through government policy rather than via the legal system.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Good article on the legal background: Two Major Climate Change Lawsuits Move Forward

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  2. Thus setting themselves up nicely for an argument 

    "Look, we don't control these guys"

    even as the indirect funding continues.   

    Also that Exxon != Chevron. 

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  3. Big oil funded the Heartland Institute, when they could have chosen to fund other business lobby groups less in denial about the science. Its got guilt written all over it.

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  4. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Climate Denial Arguments Make Their Way to Federal Judge’s Science Tutorial by Amy Westervelt, Climate Liability News, Mar 20, 2018

    8 Answers to the Judge’s Climate Change Questions in Cities vs. Fossil Fuels Case by John H Cushman Jr, InsideClimate News, Mar 20, 2018

    In Climate Tutorial, Oil Industry Doubles Down on Science Uncertainty by Amy Westervelt, Climate Liability News, Mar 22, 2018

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  5. I find it remarkable to argue that

    "... climate change is caused 'largely by economic and population growth' ",

    since that is only the case because of fossil fuel use. Both economic or population growth can of course occur as a result of energy availability (as a proxy) from other sources. And that qualifies the quote/argument above squarely as a non-sequitor fallacy.

    Thanks for the links JH !

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  6. More supplemental reding:

    How Do Big Oil Companies Talk about Climate Science? Four Takeaways from a Day in Court by Kristina Dahl, Union of Concerned Scientists, Mar 22, 2018

    The Climate Is Changing For Climate Skeptics by Amy Westervelt, Environment, Huffpost, Mar 23, 2018

    Chevron just agreed in court that humans cause climate change, setting a new legal precedent by Umair Irfan, Energy & Environment, Vox, Mar 28, 2018

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  7. Interesting point from the Vox article.

    "But as Boutrous (for Chevron) detailed the history of how climate scientists like Svante Arrhenius and John Tyndall developed their theories, he also noted that previous IPCC reports weren’t always so certain. The 1990 report said that “the observed increase could be largely due to natural variability.” The 1995 report said that signals were emerging that there is human influence on the climate. The 2001 report said that warming was “very unlikely” due to natural causes alone.

    The point he was making was that the consensus took time to build, and as the science got better, Chevron moved with it. Past rhetoric from oil companies reflected this uncertainty in the science, and Chevron now has a comprehensive strategy for managing climate risks, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions."

    Thats what a smart fossil fuel company (Chevron), with a bright Board and good lawyers does. Agrees, says we can't be blamed for the past because, well, because, and we are being 'really really good now'.

    Exactly which of the other FF majors thought sending in the clowns instead was a better strategy?

    This will be the next strategy, "its real, we accept that, and we are being really good". I expect funding from the mainstream, publicly listed FF companies to the denier institutes to start to dry up. It will only be the Koch's etc who keep funding them.

    And the next battle in the inside business wars around climate change? What happens when the FF majors adopt this strategy realise and the the Kochistas are undermining their next step? We may not be able to do much to the Koch's, but what happens to them when Exxon, Chevron & Total come after them with all legal guns blazing - and insider information about how the denial machine works?

    This would be a perfectly reasonble PR tactic. "We accept climate change and we are really, really doing .... something ... about it - see we built a wind farm. But these evil climate deniers and these evil billionaires, they are just so bad. It's unAmerican! Don't worry, we won't stand for this, the people of America can depend on us to protect them from evil money".

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  8. Glenn Tamblyn@7,

    There is additional understanding related to the devious actions of the delayers of climate action through the past 30 years.

    I shared a version of following on the "Climate scientists debate a flaw in the Paris climate agreement" in response to John Hartz's comment pointing to an article about the IPCC reports already being an outdated understanding when they are published.

    Several years ago I heard a CBC Radio interview of one of Canada's scientist representatives working on writing an IPCC Report (unable to find an archive of that interview on the CBC website). His main point was that he, and every other scientist, had a political-minder reviewing what was being written and potentially pushing for a political interest. The only limit on the political push was that the final wording had to be scientifically supportable (scientifically representing the available evidence).

    Political interests that wish to diminish or delay corrective climate action can (and almost certainly did) abuse that process to push for the least disastrous presentation that can be supported by the available information. They pushed as hard as possible toward the 'feel good news' side of how bad things will be.

    As more information is obtained, as more climate science is performed, it gets harder to push that low. Each subsequent report is highly likely to ratchet up 'how bad things could be', even without a significant development of new learning indicating more negative future results, just an increase of information supporting the previous report's median, rather than best case, scientific understanding of how bad things could be.

    So, the 'legal argument' made by the likes of Chevron that the earlier IPCC reports were not as adamant about how bad things were, how unacceptable what had developed was, are constructed by abusing the fact that each IPCC Report is subject to political manipulation by the 'powerful likes of Chevron/Exxon/Koch Industries and the elected representatives they can influence' towards down-playing how bad things have developed to be and how much worse they will become.

    Increasing awareness that 'legal' does not mean 'ethical or helpful or acceptable' is an important part of the required increased awareness and better understanding that will make a beneficial difference for the future of humanity. And increasing awareness that popularity and profitability have proven to be lousy measures of acceptability, and detrimental to ethics and helpfulness, is also important.

    But the most important increase of understanding is that the systems that develop unsustainable activities that are harmful to others also develop resistance to being corrected. And they 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 problem'.

    Efforts to increase awareness and improve understanding are always helpful, compared to the alternative of resistance to correction growing stronger, more damaging, and ultimately unsustainable but doing tremendous harm before it is ended. Not sure what the best answer is, but one good result would be a correction of the systems to apply the highest expectation and requirement for helpfulness to the richest and most influential/powerful. That could be the basis for all legal actions, leading to penalties and other corrective actions being applied to someone who chooses not to behave more helpfully/correctly, even if what they did was not clearly contravening 'currently written laws of the day'. And the highest expectation of proper understanding of how to be helpful would be applied to the richest and most powerful.

    It will be interesting to see just how rapidly the corrections of the incorrectly developed systems occur. The continued unjustified claim-making by the passionate deniers of climate science, exposing what has to change to limit the harm done to future generations, will hopefully fuel a more aggressive development of public support for the need for correction, to the detriment of those who tried to delay such corrections.

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