SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that heat-trapping carbon emissions are warming the planet, a Big Oil attorney argued in court Wednesday that doubt still lingers as to how much the fossil fuel industry has impacted climate change.
"There are uncertainties about the degree to which human activities contribute to the ice melt," said Chevron attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr, of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles.
Boutrous made his argument during an hours-long tutorial intended to give U.S. District Judge William Alsup a crash course on the science of climate change. Alsup oversees two lawsuits seeking to hold Big Oil liable for the cost of sea walls and other climate-related projects in Oakland and San Francisco. The defendants include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
Despite being billed as purely informational hearing, Boutrous on Wednesday managed to slip in arguments aimed at undercutting claims that oil companies conspired for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of fossil fuels.
The attorney started his presentation by declaring that Chevron "accepts the consensus of the scientific community on climate change," but then launched into a two-hour lecture, at times attacking findings on the cause of melting icecaps and the risk posed by rising sea levels.
Boutrous noted how it took more than 20 years for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, to find it "extremely likely that human influence" is the dominant cause of modern climate change. The panel reached that conclusion in 2013.
The Chevron attorney appeared to suggest that oil companies could not have known their industry was the driving force behind climate change because the scientific community hadn't officially reached that consensus until 2013, though previous findings indicated that human activity was likely the primary cause.
Dr. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the nonprofit environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, dismissed Boutrous' argument as having been "plucked right from the climate-denier playbook."
"The evidence is very clear that Chevron and other fossil fuel companies knew in the '70s that climate change was real and fossil fuels, their product, were the main driver of climate change, and that climate change was going to cause very serious harms," Wolf said.
Oakland and San Francisco claim the oil giants knew about the dangers as far back as 1968. In its 37-page complaint, Oakland cites a 1998 memo drafted by the oil companies' Global Science Communications Team task force. The 8-page memo states that "victory will be achieved when" average citizens and media "understand (recognize) uncertainties in climate science" and when "recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'"
Exxon is also under investigation for climate change fraud in New York state.
"Over at least the last 19 years, Exxon in particular has paid researchers and front groups to create uncertainties about basic climate change science and used denialist groups to attack well-respected scientists," Oakland says in its complaint.
Back in the courtroom, Dr. Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, presented on behalf of the plaintiffs findings from a 475-page report released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program last year.
Wuebbles called it the "most comprehensive assessment of climate change" ever conducted by the U.S. government, and said it shows the climate is changing rapidly, "about 10 times faster than anything we've seen since the end of the last Ice Age."
"The evidence strongly indicates this is largely happening because of human activities," Wuebbles added.
The study found sea level rose 7.7 inches over the last century and predicted additional increases of 1 to 4 feet or more over the next 100 years.
That finding contradicted lower sea level projections presented by Chevron, which was based on data from 2012, according to Wuebbles.
"Science did not stop," Wuebbles said. "There's a lot we have learned over the last five years."
At the outset of Wednesday's hearing, Alsup chastised some members of the press for likening the upcoming science tutorial to the famous Scopes Monkey trial, a comparison Alsup said he found laughable.
"This is not a trial," Alsup said. "We often have these tutorials so that the poor judge can learn some science ... This is a serious proposition to try to educate the judge. That's the purpose."
All five oil companies have moved to dismiss the two lawsuits for lack of jurisdiction, claiming the cities' public nuisance claims are pre-empted by the Clean Air Act. A hearing date has not yet been set for the motions to dismiss.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria remanded three other lawsuits seeking to hold Big Oil liable for rising sea levels to state court. Those suits were filed by San Mateo County, Marin County, and the city of Imperial Beach in San Diego.Follow @NicholasIovino
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.