Climate Change Trial Starts on Rough Footing for Environmentalists

A layer of pollution can be seen hovering over Los Angeles / Getty Images
April 2, 2018

A civil suit playing out between five American oil companies and the municipalities of Oakland and San Francisco started off poorly for climate change activists.

In preparation for California v. Chevron, the date for which has yet to determined, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ordered the litigants converge for a "climate change tutorial" in an effort to ensure all parties understood the scientific foundation that would form the basis of the trial. The city attorneys of San Francisco and Oakland, the suit's plaintiffs who are championed by climate change activists, were reportedly thrilled by the prospect. Some activists even compared the tutorial to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The suit accuses the energy companies–BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Conoco Phillips, and Shell–of contributing to climate change and conspiring to cover up their knowledge of the associated detrimental effects.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Steven W. Berman, is expected to argue that because of the companies' contributions to climate change, municipalities are now being forced to commit financial resources to combatting environmental changes.

In defense, the companies' lawyers don't seem to be questioning the science behind climate change, but rather their clients' responsibility. The lawyers are expected to argue that the individuals who burn fossil fuels, rather than companies, are responsible for contributions to climate change.

During the tutorial, the judge pointed to several inaccuracies in the data and materials provided by the plaintiffs, sometimes to the embarrassment of climate change activists.

Alsup also castigated the plaintiff's claims of a "smoking gun" document that would prove the conspiracy claims true. The plaintiffs pointed to a report that the companies had in their possession as proof they knew about the nefarious effects of climate change in 1995.

The "smoking gun" document in question proved to be a regurgitated summary of a 1995 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the time of its release, the report was subject to significant scrutiny by many in the scientific community because it was riddled with huge uncertainties.

"There was a conspiratorial document within the defendants about how they knew good and well that global warming was right around the corner," Alsup said. "Well, it turned out it wasn’t quite that. What it was, was a slide show that somebody had gone to the IPCC and was reporting on what the IPCC had reported, and that was it. Nothing more."

The judge pointed out that since the report was widely and readily available, proving a conspiracy claim would be difficult.

"So they were on notice of what in IPCC said from that document, but it’s hard to say that they were secretly aware," he said. "By that point they knew. Everybody knew everything in the IPCC."

Since the release of the report, many of its key projections have been proved unfounded.

Berman, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, is a high-profile trial lawyer who played an instrumental role in bringing a similar suit against the nation's largest tobacco producers in the 1990s. Berman worked on the team that helped craft the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of 1998, which at the time was the largest settlement in history. The MSA resulted from a suit between the four largest tobacco producers in the United States and the attorneys general of 46 states. The attorneys general argued the states were entitled to compensation for the medical costs associated with caring for individuals suffering from smoking-related illnesses. The tobacco companies settled the suit, agreeing to pay $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement. The companies also agreed to impose restrictions and prohibitions on marketing tobacco products, especially to children and youth.