San Francisco and Oakland are battling the world’s oil giants in federal court for knowingly producing fossil fuels whose emissions have triggered sea level rise. The two coastal cities argue that oil companies — including BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell — should foot the bill for hugely expensive infrastructure defenses to hold back rising waters — such as formidable sea walls.
And now — for the first time — a federal judge will listen as both sides present their understanding of climate science and the causes of global warming before the court. The hearing, referred to by the judge as a “tutorial,” will address at least 14 specific questions that U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup asked both sides on Feb. 27.
“To my knowledge, no court has asked for this sort of presentation on climate science,” said Justin Gundlach, a climate lawyer at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in an interview.
“This is an odd procedure, but one that makes sense,” Gundlach said.
Oil companies and the cities have fundamental disagreements about climate science findings, so settling on some foundational realities about the effects of sending massive amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere could give Alsup an improved idea of how to rule in the case.
“What’s interesting about this request is that it does seem that an inevitable outcome is a list of stipulations about climate science — things all reasonable people should agree on,” said Gundlach.
“That’s not to say that the parties are going to agree,” he added.
Judge Alsup wrote a court notice asking that a “tutorial” be provided over the course of five hours, in which both sides will be given 60 minutes to present on each of two subjects:
Tracing “the history of scientific study of climate change, beginning with scientific inquiry into the formation and melting of the ice ages, periods of historical cooling and warming, smog, ozone, nuclear winter, volcanoes, and global warming.”
Setting forth “the best science now available on global warming, glacier melt, sea rise, and coastal flooding.”
While Gundlach said he’s not sure what approach the oil companies will choose to take when describing climate science, he speculated that they may “emphasize uncertainties about how climate change will affect the future” as a way to avoid responsibilities for effects like sea level rise.
The lawyers for San Francisco and Oakland will likely present evidence that, as early as the 1970s, scientists within the oil industry were well aware of the effects carbon emissions would have on the global climate.
“Even at this time, with the global warming danger level at a critical phase, defendants continue to engage in massive fossil fuel production and execute long-term business plans to continue and even expand their fossil fuel production for decades into the future,” the complaint states.
Already, climate scientists are working to crowdsource answers to Alsup’s climate science questions. Many of these questions are elementary to climate scientists and are not up for much debate in the climate science community — such as the causes of ice ages:
1. What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods)? Per my book, ice ages are driven by orbital variability, aided by a CO2 feedback: 2/ pic.twitter.com/bA69zlDRss
— Andrew Dessler (@AndrewDessler) March 8, 2018
Beyond addressing these basic tenants of climate science, it’s possible both sides may look at recent research attempting to gauge each oil corporations’ responsibility for historic carbon emissions — meaning who’s responsible for what fraction of the world’s total emissions from burning oil and gas.
“I would think the fight would be over that — to the extent that there’s a fight,” said Gundlach.
This lawsuit is part of a wave of legal actions taken by everyone from 21 young Americans to New York City to try to force the oil industry and the federal government to recognize the scientific consensus on the subject and take action to address climate change.
Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.