California Lawsuit: Oil Companies, Global Warming, Climate Change, Deception
California Lawsuit: Oil Companies, Global Warming, Climate Change, Deception: What The Jury Needs To Know. Part 1.
Originally published on Forbes.com on September 26, 2023
If there has been deception, was it due to oil majors deliberately misleading the public or merely expressing uncertainty about the effects of climate change?
Five oil companies, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP along with the trade group American Petroleum Institute, have been named in a lawsuit brought by California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. The lawsuit alleges the oil companies knew about the risks posed by climate change due to the burning of oil and gas fossil fuels, but followed this up by decades of deception when lying about climate change that “forced the state to spend tens of billions of dollars to address environmental-related damages.”
Here are more choice words about the lawsuit allegations. “The burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change.” Also, “From extreme heat to drought and water shortages, the climate crisis they [oil companies] have caused is undeniable. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused.” And, “…to prevent the [oil] companies from making any further false or misleading statements about the contribution of fossil fuel combustion to climate change.”
Facts for a jury to consider.
First, there is a question on the definition of climate change. It could be climate change due to natural events such as cycles of El Nino and La Nina that occur every 3-7 ears. In the desert of the southwest U.S., generally more storminess occurs when El Nino is on the land. The cause is a natural uprising of heat from ocean depths in the South Pacific.
Or it could be climate change caused by man-made effects such as carbon emissions — carbon dioxide, CO2, or methane, CH4. For example, over the past 43 years the Arctic region has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world (which has warmed by 1.0 degree C since late 1800s), and has led to a serious loss of Arctic ice.
Second, there is a chain of events that a jury needs to know about when discussing man-made climate change. This is important to understand cause and effect. Let’s take a closer look at Figure 1.
Carbon emissions and global warming.
This part of the chain was studied comprehensively by Exxon in the late 1970s and the 1980s, in fact all the way into the 2000s.
An Exxon study done in 1982 focused on global warming caused by increasing carbon emissions. Remarkably, thirty-seven years ago Exxon accurately predicted that by 2019, the earth would hit a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 ppm and a temperature increase of almost 1 degree C.
These were serious, sophisticated studies of global warming predictions that Exxon was not afraid to publish in peer-reviewed journals between 1983 and 1984: Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph.
Exxon knew the CO2 levels were increasing over time, and must have known and modeled, the major contribution to this from burning of fossil fuels including their own production of oil and gas. Fossil fuels today contribute 73% of all global carbon emissions.
It is clear that Exxon got global warming right 40 years ago and confirmed it 20 years ago. But in later years it was alleged that Exxon in public cast doubt on the science of climate change.
Global warming versus climate change.
A jury needs to understand that Exxon’s main predictions in the 1970s and 1980s were about global warming, not climate change which is a different animal.
As an example of the confusion between global warming and climate change, a recent report said the following about Exxon: “New academic research shows that oil giant Exxon’s own climate projections, dating back decades, consistently predicted how burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. The finding lends statistical rigor to the understanding that Exxon executives knew climate change was real, but publicly cast doubt on the science anyway.”
But prediction of the effects of climate change from global warming is another big step (Figure 1), and is fraught with uncertainties. Let’s look at these uncertainties.
In years past, Exxon did acknowledge potential effects that global warming might have on climate. Here are a few quotes by Exxon or ExxonMobil.
In 1980, Roger Cohen wrote, “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
In 1997, Exxon’s CEO Lee Raymond said, “Let’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond.”
In 2013, chief executive Rex Tillerson said, “The facts remain there are uncertainties around the climate… what the principal drivers of climate change are.”
A jury in the lawsuit will want to know what is the evidence for climate change. There are two lines of evidence (Table 1). The first contains direct indicators of climate change, while the second lists indirect indicators. The evidence is stronger for direct than it is for indirect indicators.
Direct indicators of climate change.
The direct indicators of Table 1 are agreed and mostly settled because long-term data exist to confirm these trends. Arctic ice melting is well documented. But the massive Antarctic ice sheet is also melting at an unforeseen rate, and this has potentially serious consequences for the flow of ocean currents around the globe and their potential effect on humankind.
A large majority of glaciers have been retreating since 1850, the nominal start of the Industrial Revolution.
A UN-sponsored report said global mass coral bleaching first occurred in 1998 and has been increasing. Roughly 14% of the world’s coral has been lost since 2009.
Marine scientists surveyed 719 shallow water reefs on the Great Barrier Reef in 2022. Over 90% of the reefs were bleached by warmer sea water, the sixth mass bleaching since 1998.
Sea levels are rising in most places around the world, and the average in this decade is 2-3 mm per year, which amounts to 0.08-0.12 inches per year. This would mean only about 8 inches total by 2100. But if we allow for an exponential rate of increase, rather than linear, the total sea level increase would be about 36 inches or 3 feet. But, to keep this in perspective, 77 years from now is plenty of time to adapt to the situation, like building 6 foot-tall sea walls, or higher, to protect low-lying countries where storm surges are known to damage buildings and threaten people’s lives.
The last item of direct indicators in Table 1 is biodiversity changes. The English master, David Attenborough, has published videos and documentaries on this subject. One theme that emerges is the large number of variables that influence biodiversity changes. Climate change may be one of these variables, but it’s not a dominant influencer. To say this another way, biodiversity changes are the most uncertain proof of climate change in the Direct list of Table 1.
Delay in trial.
By this time, the prosecutor in the California lawsuit will have presented the direct indicators that look like convincing evidence for climate change. But this is not the whole story. The defense has yet to address the indirect indicators. They will have good arguments that the killer quad of extreme weather events, which cause major problems for humanity, does not support climate change.
But the defense will request a delay in this trial to firm up their evidence, and the judge will agree. So this evidence will be presented in Part 2 of this series, to save time and space in this Part 1.
What a jury will hear about the deception.
Let’s speculate what the jury will need to know about the deception mentioned in the lawsuit. First, there has been no oil company deception about carbon emissions causing global warming. Exxon proved this decades ago. Further, ExxonMobil now has a strong program to remove carbon emissions from their own well sites and associated facilities and to bury them via carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Second, there may have been uncertain statements from Exxon about global warming causing climate change. Yes, there are direct indicators of this climate change. But no, the indirect indicators will not show long-term evidence of worsening drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and super-rain floods. These indirect extreme weather events are big-issue problems that cause major damage to people, homes, infrastructure, and governments. But they have not worsened by global warming of 1 C degree.
So, when the jury returns, they will have to consider: if there was deception, was the deception due to major oil companies expressing uncertainty about the effects of climate change? Or was it caused by magazines and press agents who ignored the non-evidence of climate change worsening the killer quad of extreme weather events?
If emissions from burning their oil and gas by parties who buy their products are included, ExxonMobil’s contribution to global emissions is massive because they are the biggest oil major in the US and one of the biggest in the world. Yet the company has set big goals on a course to limit its carbon emissions.
ExxonMobil seems to be saying, by their actions, that climate changes may become serious, and that they are embarking on certain actions to reduce or bury carbon emissions, just in case. But not serious enough for ExxonMobil to begin to switch from the production of oil and gas to the production of wind and solar energy, although they have lofty goals for the production of blue hydrogen, which is not climate-friendly and has its limitations.
The predictions made 20-40 years ago by Exxon of greenhouse gases and global warming were remarkably accurate. They got this right. And they agreed that it had a human cause – largely due to the burning of fossil fuels.
But predicting climate change is a different animal. Weather extremes such as the killer quad of droughts, wildfires, super-rain floods, and hurricanes can wreak havoc in the form of famines, flooding, migration, and government instability. But it will be shown in Part 2 that these severe effects have not worsened over the last 40-50 years, on a global basis.