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Climate change science is basis of San Francisco and Oakland’s legal case against Big Oil companies, to make them pay billions for rising public cost of rising sea level due to global warming. In a surprise move, Chevron admits humans are causing climate change but says the company is not liable

Story Transcript

KATHLEEN MAITLAND-CARTER: A potentially landmark legal case had its first day in court in California. Last year, the coastal cities of San Francisco and Oakland sued the five big oil companies, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell, with the charge of public nuisance, seeking billions of dollars for protections against sea level rise due to climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuel.

The oil companies were unsuccessful in their bid to kill the case against them as well as in their effort to change the jurisdiction to state from federal court, after they themselves had petitioned for federal court thinking the case would be tossed out as others had before it. But perhaps it’s not only the jurisdiction, but the presiding judge that has them worried.

The presiding Judge William Allsop, known for blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program also known as DACA, called for a two-hour climate science tutorial from each side to present the best science now available on global warming glacial melt sea rise and coastal flooding. Of the defendants, only Chevron participated. The others refused in what they said was in protest to the case’s jurisdiction. In his climate science tutorial, Chevron’s lawyer Theodore Boutros, Jr. cited a 2012 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Experts in the fast-moving field of climate change called his presentation outdated, saying that climate science didn’t stop in 2012 and criticized him for cherry picking data on sea level rise. The Chevron lawyer also stated that the IPCC said it was the burning of fossil fuel, not the extraction, where they laid the blame for climate change.

The case is said to hinge on what the oil giants knew about fossil fuel’s effect on climate change, when they knew it, and if they then misled the public, conducting business as usual. In what may become a potential turning point in the case, presenting for the cities Professor Myles Allen from Oxford University noted not only have 50 per cent of emissions been produced since 1980, but that it is possible to trace CO2 emissions directly to products sold by individual companies. This latter fact could be a game changer in what environmental economists have labelled the social cost of carbon that externalizes the price of burning fossil fuel onto the public. ExxonMobil has been singled out for investigation by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts after leaked internal emails and investigative reports demonstrated that Exxon knew about the catastrophic effects of their product for decades, and engaged in a world wide disinformation campaign to sow doubt over the conclusive climate science, some of which they themselves had funded.

None of the big oil companies are strangers to legal battles. All have faced charges, and in some cases paid massive fines for individual and extensive oil spills. But this would be the first time they would be held accountable for the effects of climate change caused by their products. In the past, similar cases have been dismissed with the judgment stating it is in the dominion of Congress and the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions. The lawyers for the California cities have framed their case as a public nuisance lawsuit seeking money for the cities to deal with the costs of sea level rise and so-called 100 year floods, which could happen three times a year due to global warming according to scientists.

Judge Allsop told the oil companies who did not present climate science tutorials that they have two weeks to accept or deny each and every statement made by Chevron during its climate science presentation. This is Kathleen Maitland-Carter reporting for the Real News. Please stay tuned as we continue to follow this unfolding story.

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Kathleen has worked in television and film for over a decade as a writer, director, and producer of both documentary and narrative films. Her films have been screened in cinemas and in national and international film festivals. Her work has also featured on the BBC, CBC, City TV, MTV Europe, PBS, W: The Women’s Network, ZDF (Germany), and other networks and media outlets. Kathleen has also worked as a freelance curator of experimental film and video art. As a journalist, she has written about politics and independent media for various publications.