In an unprecedented “tutorial” before a federal judge Wednesday, a lawyer for a major U.S. oil company accepted the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of global climate change. But he also emphasized uncertainties about future impacts, while deflecting industry responsibility.
The presentation by Chevron lawyer Ted Boutrous foreshadowed the strategy that oil companies will likely employ in trying to fend off climate change litigation filed by coastal cities. In this case, San Francisco and Oakland contend that oil and coal industries sought to delay emissions regulations by discrediting climate change research, and should be held liable for the impacts, including damage caused by rising seas.
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup scheduled the tutorial Wednesday so both sides could summarize the history of climate change science, and the most import recent research, before scheduling further hearings.
“I read in the paper the other day that this was going to be a Scopes monkey trial. I had to laugh,” said Alsup from the bench, adding that he only wanted to get a better understanding of the science.
In their presentations, expert witnesses for the two coastal cities emphasized climate change research from the last six years, which suggest the polar ice sheets will melt faster than predicted, accelerating sea-level rise and the dangers faced by coastal cities.
By contrast, Chevron and Boutrous emphasized the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produced its latest assessment in 2013. The IPCC report included chapters on how to mitigate potential climate impacts by reducing emissions, but Boutrous made little mention of those.
Instead, the lawyer focused on an IPCC chapter that detailed “uncertainties” about the speed and consequences of predicted global warming. This included the challenges of scientifically confirming that worldwide warming is already causing local impacts, such as sea-level rise.
Boutrous also emphasized that the five-year-old IPCC report identified population growth as a major cause in the spike of greenhouse gas emissions. “It is not (energy) production and extraction that is driving this increase, it is how people are leading their lives,” said Boutrous, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Unlike Oakland and San Francisco, Chevron did not bring expert scientists to testify at Wednesday’s five-hour tutorial. Moreover, none of the other defendants in the case — including, BP, Exxon and other oil and coal companies — made any statements to the court.
Alsup took note of that, and issued a stern order to the other fossil fuel companies, which had lawyers quietly in attendance at the hearing. Alsup said they had a week to file any disagreements with Boutrous’s presentation.
“You can’t get away in sitting there in silence, and then say he wasn’t speaking for us,” said the judge.
Alsup, appointed by former President Bill Clinton, is known for immersing himself in technical court cases, and asking for “tutorials” from both sides. Last year, he asked lawyers for a tutorial on self-driving car technology in a lawsuit that pits Google’s Waymo against Uber. He previously taught himself the Java programming language in deciding a lawsuit involving Oracle against Google.
At Wednesday’s ruling, the judge wore what he called his “science tie” — showing planetary constellations — and he seemed to relish asking a variety of earth science questions. He questioned Boutrous about details in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He also asked the lawyer about a TV show he’d recently seen about the “Ring of Fire,” volcanic eruptions under the oceans that release levels of carbon dioxide.
During the early part of the tutorial, Oxford scientist Myles Allen and Boutrous summarized the work of early atmospheric scientists. One of these was Svante August Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist who theorized in the 19th century that carbon dioxide emissions from coal would be trapped in the atmosphere, and raise the earth temperature, since radiation from the earth would have less ability to escape.
Arrhenius’s findings were eventually recognized as being on target. Alsup was impressed.
“Don’t you think it’s amazing that that guy ... with just the back of an envelope with pencil and paper, could have made that projection that even today sounds pretty reasonable?” said Alsup.
Chevron’s Boutrous agreed. “These scientists are brilliant,” he said.
For students of history and climate sciences, Wednesday’s hearing offered a buffet of technical insights. Allen highlighted the research of California’s Charles and Ralph Keeling, a pair of father-son scientists who over decades documented the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, confirming predictions of earlier scientists.
Allen also made note of recent research that has quantified the contribution of industrial oil and gas industries to climate changes — data that is likely to surface again in future court hearings.
After Boutrous made his presentation, regarding the uncertainties listed in the 2013 IPCC report, University of Illinois scientist Don Wuebbles presented for the coastal cities. Wuebbles helped write the latest peer-reviewed U.S. report on climate change, the 4th U.S. Climate Assessment, released earlier this year.
Wuebbles says the latest research shows ever-higher temperatures, including 2016 being the warmest year on record globally. It also warns of more intense wildfires, floods, droughts, coastal storms and other intensifed disasters.
“The science doesn’t stop at 2012,” said Wuebbles, throwing an elbow at Chevron’s presentation.
Alsup’s tutorial is a preliminary step to arguments on various legal questions of the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits. Oil industry lawyers are expected to challenge the cities’ standing to file the litigation, and whether a court is the proper forum to address their complaints. Chevron on Tuesday filed a motion to dismiss the case, which Alsup will consider at a future hearing.
Environmental advocates had mixed reactions Wednesday.
“Chevron’s lawyer plucked his strategy right from the climate-denier playbook,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who attended the hearing. “He overemphasized and inflated narrow areas of uncertainty about global warming’s impacts. And he bobbed and weaved his way out of acknowledging the role of fossil fuels.”
Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist for the Union of Concern Scientists, said there’s value in getting Chevron on the record about climate change science. Future hearings, she said, will likely focus on the oil companies actions in recent decades.
“The point of this tutorial was to go over the science, and that is the underlying issue here,” said Dahl, who also attended the hearing. “We want to know what the oil companies knew and when they knew it and what their responsibility is.”
Wednesday’s hearing was videotaped, and may be viewable by Thursday at the court’s website, http://www.cand.uscourts.gov/home.
The cases are: People of the State of California v. BP P.L.C. et al., San Francisco Superior Court Case No. CGC 17-561370, filed Sept. 19, 2017. People of the State of California v. BP P.L.C. et al., Alameda County Superior Court Case No. RG17875889, filed Sept. 19, 2017.