A judge in California is presiding over the the first “climate science tutorial” held in a federal courtroom today.
The cities of San Francisco and Oakland are suing Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, and Shell over what the cities see as the companies’ role in causing climate change. The cities want the energy companies to contribute to efforts to combat the consequences of climate change, especially sea-level rise, which is a threat to swaths of the Bay Area. Sea-level projections are already beginning to cause property values to drop and forcing residents — and billion-dollar tech companies— to consider relocating in the years ahead.
As part of that suit, lawyers representing the five energy companies — as well as those representing the cities of San Francisco and Oakland — must answer eight climate change-related questions posed by the judge, William Alsup.
For this tutorial, each side was given an hour to present their direct answers to the questions, as well as another hour to give an overview of their understanding of modern climate science and the history of climate change — a topic that stretches back five decades. (A group at Stanford University first modeled the effects of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in 1968 for a report delivered to the American Petroleum Institute.)
The eight questions address basic climate concepts, like the causes of the geologically recent ice ages, as well as the science of how emissions from car exhaust and factories get trapped in the atmosphere at the molecular level.
This hearing, and the case overall, could set a legal precedent that establishes the facts and mechanisms of climate change in federal courtrooms, according to Vox. Building off recent scientific advances that can attribute specific impacts or events to climate change, the results of this trial could be used to build a foundation for holding energy companies liable for the impacts of climate change around the world.
The court’s establishment of climate science will become all the more important as a number of other climate lawsuits move through the courts. A trial date is expected to be set soon for a case in which a group of 21 kids are suing the federal government for failing to protect them from the effects of climate change.
For these reasons, the climate science tutorial is being compared to the famous Scope’s monkey trial, a 1925 case over whether it was lawful to teach high school students evolution. The trial wound up establishing and shining a light on the scientific facts of a controversial debate. It’s immortalized in the play “Inherit the Wind.”
The difference between this case and the 1925 one, however, is that both sides appear to agree that climate change is occurring and is driven by human activity that’s led to an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions. The aim of the tutorial is to help federal courts lay out what scientists, energy companies, and municipalities know — and don’t know — about climate change.
Exxon recently pledged to reduce its emissions after bowing to shareholder pressure last year. The company also said it will report the impacts that climate change and environmental regulations have on its business. Shell and BP announced similar policies recently.
Investigations have revealed, however, that Exxon has long been aware of its role in perpetrating climate change — the company has even been accused of deliberately obfuscating the findings of its own scientists for decades. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is currently investigating whether Exxon may have misled investors about the impact of climate change.