Climate Denial’s Day in Court

March 23, 2018

Above, CEO of Shell – “my next buy is and electric car”.

Below, an extraordinary “day in court” for climate science.


SAN FRANCISCO — There were no test tubes or Bunsen burners, but a courtroom turned into a science classroom Wednesday for a U.S. judge considering lawsuits that accuse big oil companies of lying about the role of fossil fuels in the Earth’s warming environment.

Leading researchers taught U.S. District Judge William Alsup the basic science of climate change at the unusual court hearing after he asked lawyers for two California cities and five of the world’s largest oil and gas companies to present “the best science now available on global warming.”

He cautioned at the start of the hearing against expecting “fireworks” and said he wanted to avoid politics and “stick to the science.”

“This is a serious proposition to try to educate the judge,” Alsup said.

What he got at the end of the nearly five-hour hearing was a primer on the history of climate change research, carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and extreme weather.

His teachers included Myles Allen, a professor at the University of Oxford who studies human influences on climate, and Don Wuebbles, an expert in atmospheric science at the University of Illinois who co-authored a 2017 U.S. government report on climate change.

An attorney for Chevron, Theodore Boutrous, also presented, saying the oil giant does not dispute the findings of an international panel of scientists that it is extremely likely people are the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-1900s.

But he pointed out how thinking about global warming has evolved and said the company does not agree with all proposals in place to deal with it.

“The notion that we know today of a dynamic changing climate is relatively new in human understanding,” he said.

Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian:

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 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 Happer, Steve 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 Foundation, Peabody 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.

Union of Concerned Scientists:

1. Judge Alsup was highly engaged with the presenters from each side

The plaintiffs had three renowned scientists present their tutorial: Dr. Myles Allen of Oxford University, Dr. Gary Griggs of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Dr. Don Wuebbles of the University of Illinois. The defendants had one representative–Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous–presenting. Alsup interrupted each presenter many, many times to get clarification, to dissect a chart or graph, or to ask additional questions. I came away with the sense that Alsup truly wanted to understand the causes and consequences of climate change, and it is great to see such engagement.

2. The Fifth Assessment Report done by the IPCC no longer fully reflects the most current scientific consensus on climate change

For the defendants’ presentation, Mr. Boutrous relied almost entirely on results from the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. He opened his portion by stating that Chevron accepts the scientific consensus on climate change represented in the IPCC report, including that humans are the primary cause of observed warming in recent decades. This, he said, has been the company’s position for about ten years. He then walked Judge Alsup through a series of slides highlighting conclusions, as well as uncertainties, from the IPCC report. By relying so exclusively on the IPCC report, he bolstered his claim that Chevron’s views are in line with mainstream science, but also exposed just how much climate science has progressed since the report was released in 2013.Among the many major scientific developments of the last five years are:

  • A greater understanding of the potential contribution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet to sea level rise this century;  and
  • The ability to rigorously attribute virtually all observed warming since the mid-1900’s to human activity, and a portion of the observed warming and sea level rise to the products of specific fossil fuel producers. As Mr. Boutrous went through his presentation, I was struck by how much the consensus view has sharpened in the last five years. A few minutes later, Dr. Wuebbles began his presentation, the final one for the plaintiffs, by explaining, from the perspective of a lead author for both the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment and the US Fourth National Climate Assessment issued in 2017, that “science didn’t stop in 2012.” He then proceeded to highlight results from the 2017 report, which is the latest and most comprehensive assessment of the state of climate science for the U.S.

In UCS’s 2016 Climate Accountability Scorecard, Chevron scored “poor” on acknowledging climate science. So it was a big step for Chevron to state, on the record, that it accepts the scientific consensus on climate change. But since the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, the trends have become clearer and our ability to attribute climate change to human activity has progressed. So accepting the consensus view as of five years ago is simply not sufficient.

3. Chevron continues to highlight uncertainties and cherry-pick information

While Mr. Boutrous did rely almost entirely on information and graphics from the 2013 IPCC report, many of those graphics were chosen carefully to highlight uncertainty or sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of the underlying scientific studies and the severity of the predicted impacts.

For instance, Mr. Boutrous showed projections for future warming from a suite of climate models and highlighted that some models are overly sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide concentrations and likely overestimate future warming. Later, when showing sea level rise trends globally, Mr. Boutrous highlighted a roughly decade-long period when sea level in the San Francisco area was relatively unchanging, which deliberately ignores the consistent long-term rise here and around the globe.

In addition to this questionable presentation of the data, Chevron repeatedly tried to downplay the role the fossil fuel industry plays in exacerbating climate change—by pointing to language in the IPCC report that states that population and economic growth are the drivers of increasing carbon emissions. Yes, as the world’s population grows, emissions rise because fossil fuel use increases.

But multiple investigations have uncovered evidence showing that the fossil fuel industry funded a decades-long climate science disinformation campaign to block policies that would reduce carbon emissions, and actively promoted its products to ensure fossil fuels would remain central to global energy production. Chevron continues to dismiss and deny climate risks and fund trade associations and other industry groups that still spread climate disinformation or block sensible climate policies.

When questioned by Judge Alsup on the finer points of the graphics he was showing, Mr. Boutrous was often forced to admit that his scientific understanding of the issue was limited and that he could not answer. It was striking that the oil companies chose a lawyer to present their scientific narrative, and the choice contrasted sharply with the deep scientific knowledge that the plaintiffs brought to the table.

4. Science has a key role to play in public nuisance cases, and scientists are stepping up to the plate

As graduate students, many of us climate scientists were told to be wary of wading too close to the politics of climate change, that we’d best stick to the science. Yesterday, three very prominent scientists stuck to the science, but used scientific information to establish that fossil fuel burning has already and will increasingly harm public well-being. Rather than putting “climate science on trial,” Judge Alsup’s climate science tutorial provided the case with a strong scientific underpinning that can help support making a determination, based on a set of legal standards and precedents, about the liability and responsibility of big oil companies.


13 Responses to “Climate Denial’s Day in Court”

  1. Don Osborn Says:

    It is clear (and even the Big Oil Companies agree) that if you still dispute the facts that climate change is real and man made you are either ignorant or a dishonest shill (looking at you Willie). Of course we have known this for a long time but the Repubs that continue to push forward Heartland, Koch, Peabody, etc are clearly standing there naked and without cover.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Surely this stance by Chevron – that they believe in AGW science – only makes their secretive funding of a deliberately dishonest propaganda and lobbying campaign only more damning?

    They must think they will never face individual prosecution for crimes against humanity, yet that is what they are copping to here.

  3. redskylite Says:

    Scoundrels Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon again trying to peddle their obfuscation (this time in court), even after their disgraceful paper was debunked a few moons. A sobering and timely report from NASA . .

    Based on the team’s findings, as CO2 levels continue to increase in the coming decades, the super greenhouse effect (SGE) regions will intensify and expand in areal coverage. “We know that the CO2 increase is coming from fossil fuel burning—it’s unambiguous,” Kahn said. “And basic physics tells us that if you increase the amount of these greenhouse gases, you’ll get a warming influence.”

    “SGE regions are an interesting issue that we hadn’t really thought about,” Stephens said. “But we now understand why they occur and how they might change in a warming world.”

  4. indy222 Says:

    Ha! “the consensus view as of 5 years ago” isn’t even worth the faint praise of this quote above – It’s the consensus of the UN’s IPCC and only after they constituted the IPCC with their stated goal of getting a “range of views” (from Willy Soon to Michael Mann) and a “range of expertise” (from good to lousy??) and then requiring ALL of these scientists to sign off before publication, diluting the product to near-pablam, and then even that must be signed off by the political policy rep’s, (diluting it to the point of homeopathy?)- so you don’t get anything remotely close to a center-line scientific consensus, you get the absolutely most watered down industry-friendly wishy-washy output that the (un-paid and un-praised) scientists are willing to hold still for, gather their pencils, and get the hell out of there and back to REAL work in their labs and with their grad students.

    If you want the real unbiased story, there is only once source – the peer-reviewed papers in actual scientific journals (vs trade journals). Don’t even trust the digestions of the pop science outlets, who have their own spin-meisters too often, trying to sell their product, either through over wrought hyped hope, or human extinction around the corner.

    It’s so incredibly damaging to the cause to have the IPCC official statements taken as the Holy Bible of science. We’ve been played perfectly by the denialists. They knew that if their only outlets were the transparently agenda-driven denial-o-sphere, they’d lose the battle for hearts and minds immediately. It was essential to dupe the scientists into putting their prestige on a document which they could manipulated into mud-in-the-face “doubt”.

    There are too few scientists, still, who tell it straight. I appreciate the Kevin Anderson’s, Ken Caldiera’s, Tim Garrett’s, Dennis Meadows’, who don’t shrink from telling us how dire our future is looking still today, and will continue to, as long as we refuse to acknowledge that growth at this late date on a finite planet is fatal.

  5. Remember the focus of the case, also of the kids case
    Harms caused by intentionally misleading actions caused by the Fossil Fuel Companies and their supporters

    Case proved, open and shut, thank you willie, happer Lindzen monkton and Co

    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 Foundation, Peabody Coal, the Cato Institute, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

    Game, Set and Match
    One Smart Dude that Judge, encouraged them into shooting themselves in both feet.

    Also demonstrating that far from being smart intelligent people, they are thick as 10 bricks

  6. Sir Charles Says:

    robertscribbler just released a new article => Big Oil Says You’re to Blame For Climate Change, Not Them

    I personally like the drug addict argument in one of the the comments.

  7. Sir Charles Says:

    robertscribbler just released a new article => Big Oil Says You’re to Blame For Climate Change, Not Them

    I personally like the drug dealer argument in one of the the comments.

    • indy222 Says:

      …. glad to see they can once again stand on the moral high ground. Except, for their lying about the straight science since time immemorial. Yeayyyyy, except for that, they’re blameless, right?

  8. Sir Charles Says:

    Oops. Sorry. I thought WordPress ate my comment again.

  9. nickreality65 Says:

    The 396 W/m^2 upwelling and net 333 W/m^2 GHG energy loop as shown on the K-T power flux balance diagram (Figure 10 Trenberth et al 2011jcli24) is calculated using the S-B equation with an assumed emissivity of 1.0 and an average surface temperature of 16 C, 289 K. Because of the conductive/convective/advective/latent heat participating processes of the atmospheric molecules the actual and correct radiative emissivity is about 0.16, i.e. 63/396.

    This GHG energy loop is an inappropriate calculation with zero physical reality.

    Without this energy loop the radiative greenhouse effect theory fails.

    Without RGHE man-caused climate change does not exist.

    It’s called “science.”

    Don’t be frightened, spit out the Kool-Aid and give it a try.

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