federal judge in San Francisco has ordered parties in a landmark
global warming lawsuit to hold what could be the first-ever U.S.
court hearing on the science of climate change.
proceeding, scheduled for March 21 by U.S. District Court Judge
William Alsup, will feature lawyers for Exxon, BP, Chevron and
other oil companies pitted against those for San Francisco and
Oakland — California cities that have accused
fossil fuel interestsof covering up their role in
contributing to global warming.
will be the closest that we have seen to a trial on climate
science in the United States, to date,” said Michael Burger, a
lawyer who heads the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at
on both sides say Alsup’s call for a climate change “tutorial” is
unlike anything they’ve heard of before.
don’t know of any judge who has asked for a tutorial like this,”
said Steven E. Koonin, a physicist and former Energy Department
undersecretary known for his contrarian views on global warming
research. “I think it is a great idea. Anybody having to make a
decision about climate science needs to understand the full
spectrum of what we know and what we don’t know.”
the five-hour hearing, both the cities and the oil companies will
have a chance to present Alsup with their
views on the history of climate change science, and the most
important recent findings in the field.
ordered the tutorial as part of his ruling last week that the San
Francisco and Oakland lawsuit would be heard in federal court, as
opposed to California state court. The cities had hoped their
lawsuit would be heard in state court, since California has an
nuisance” law that hasn’t been developed
in the federal court system.
of the oil industry seized
on Alsup’s ruling as a victory against
what they call “sham lawsuits.” But the judge didn’t completely
rule in the industry’s favor. His ruling created the possibility
that oil companies could be liable under federal common law for
causing a “nuisance.” Environmentalists applauded that part of his
ruling, as well as his decision to hold the March 21 tutorial.
court is forcing these companies to go on the record about their
understanding of climate science, which they have desperately
tried to avoid doing,” said Marco Simmons, general counsel for EarthRights
International, which helps groups worldwide litigate against
appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, has a
reputation for immersing himself in the technicalities of legal
cases. He famously taught
himself the Java programming language in
deciding a lawsuit that pitted Silicon Valley giants Oracle
against Google. More recently, he asked lawyers for a tutorial on
self-driving car technology in a lawsuit that pits Google’s
Waymo against Uber.
the upcoming climate change tutorial, Alsup told lawyers he wants
a two-part presentation from both sides over roughly five hours.
first part will trace 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. Each side will have sixty minutes,” the judge wrote
in his order.
second part will set forth the best science now available on
global warming, glacier melt, sea rise, and coastal flooding. Each
side will again have another sixty minutes,” he added.
has been on trial before, most famously in
Monkey Trial,” the 1925 legal case on the teaching of
evolution. But it is unlikely the March 21 tutorial will be a pure
debate on global climate change. Exxon and other oil companies
have already stated that “the
risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action.”
The oil industry has mostly accepted scientific findings that
increasing carbon emissions are warming the atmosphere.
the hearing and ongoing trial will focus more on who knew what,
when, and what they did in response.
the core of the plaintiff’s lawsuit is the idea that these
companies have long known about risks of their products ... yet
they took a course of action that resisted regulation and sought
to keep them on the market as long as possible,” said Burger, the
Columbia climate law expert.
contrast, the fossil fuels companies will likely emphasize the
uncertainty that existed as climate science evolved, and how they
needed “to act in the best interests of their shareholders,” given
the uncertainty, he added.
who worked for two years in the Obama administration and now
teaches at New York University, has long called for a public
debate on climate change science. While he agrees that
human-caused carbon dioxide has warmed the atmosphere, he takes
issue with some computer models about future impacts, and
disagrees with calls for drastic changes in energy use.
in the Wall
Street Journal last year, Koonin called for a “Red Team/Blue
Team” process to debate and test assumptions and conclusions about
climate change. That idea was picked up by EPA Administrator Scott
Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, who proposed the
same thing for his agency, an
idea he has apparently put on hold.
said any federal debate about climate change should involve all
the government’s science agencies, not just EPA. He doesn’t think
the U.S. District Court tutorial will substitute for a full public
debate, but it could help air some key areas of dispute, he said.
also expects there will be high public interest in the March 21
will probably get many more people than I chiming on the arguments
made,” he said. “So you might get an effective second road of the