In an effort to avoid doling out billions of dollars to the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, five multinational oil companies have been forced to confront the scientific implications of fossil-fuel consumption. An ongoing lawsuit filed by the two cities yielded an unforeseen result when the targeted corporations acknowledged their contribution to global warming in front of a district judge during a court-mandated tutorial. Following their admission of human impact on global warming, the five companies may find it more difficult to justify the morality of their fossil-fuel driven business.
On September 19, 2017, San Francisco and Oakland filed a lawsuit in federal court against five massive oil companies: Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Exxon Mobil. The lawsuit calls for the multi-billion dollar enterprises to subsidize both past and future construction of protective infrastructure along the coastline.
The proposed structures would protect Oakland and San Francisco from damage caused by rapidly rising sea levels, an increasingly observable effect of climate change. Rising sea levels put coastal cities such as Oakland and San Francisco at greater risk of experiencing flooding in the future.
Unlike cases revolving around specific mishaps such as oil spills, the lawsuit – officially titled “People of the State of California v. BP p.l.c. et al” – targets the five companies for their involvement in a gradual, ongoing process: climate change. The scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming has led many to question the ethics of oil companies, which benefit from the consumption of fossil fuels.
During a climate change tutorial arranged by Judge Alsup on March 21st, 2018, representatives from the oil companies conceded that fossil fuel consumption leads to negative environmental consequences. Tutorials, similar to court hearings, allow representatives in a lawsuit to discuss information which may be relevant to the case. The tutorial called for legal representatives of the two cities along with defendants of the oil companies to answer nine questions revolving around the scientific history of climate change.
Theodore Boutrous, an attorney representing all five oil companies, presented a slide to the court which read that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The two cities and five oil companies agreed that evidence of global warming being caused by consumption of carbon-based fuel was irrefutable. The oil companies’ presentation also stated that there is “a discernible human influence on global climate.”
Even if San Francisco and Oakland fail to reap financial rewards as a result of the lawsuit, oil companies’ legal acknowledgment of climate change as a product of human actions marked a turning point in the history of climate change denial.
Greg Dalton, founder of the San Francisco-based non-profit Climate One and Urban parent, stated that despite denial of humans’ role in causing climate change in the past, oil companies “understand the science, and they understood it a long time ago, decades ago. Getting them to admit it in court [was] a big step.” He said that oil companies have been aware of their impact on the earth’s climate for years, although they had not publicly acknowledged it until recently.
However, public records show that during the tutorial, Boutrous downplayed the extent of the companies’ individual contributions to climate change and emphasized the uncertainty of climate change data. Boutrous presented a slide claiming that scientists’ abilities to quantify the human influence on global climate are “currently limited.” On behalf of all five oil companies, Boutrous rejected sole culpability for rising sea levels, classifying it as a global issue which should not be attributed to any specific organization’s practices.
“Indigenous people[s] in villages in Alaska have tried, and it’s difficult to draw a straight line between a company to a particular piece of property,” Dalton said. He admitted that it will be difficult to attribute the damage facing specific Bay Area properties to the companies’ practices.
Some environmentalists are aware that admission of climate change’s existence may not translate into cleaner practices by oil companies. Kirk Herbertson, advocacy strategist for the non-profit organization Earthrights International, stressed that forcing companies to acknowledge their impact is not the end of the road for climate change advocacy. In an email correspondence, Herbertson wrote that “words are a great first step, but what environmentalists want to see is action. These oil companies are talking a good game, but in reality, they’re still expanding their fossil fuel operations. There is still a lot of work to do if we want to shift to a low carbon future.”