On March 21st, climate change will have its day in court. Sort of.
That’s the day that the California cities and the fossil fuel companies they’re suing will present “tutorials” on climate change requested by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup. One part of the tutorial each side presents will be about the history of climate science, and the second on the current state of the science. (The tutorial questions are pretty rudimentary, seeing as how Andrew Dessler can answer each in a tweet.)
This, as Columbia Law’s Michael Burger told McClatchy, “will be the closest that we have seen to a trial on climate science in the United States.” At first this seems odd, given that Mass vs EPA and other landmark lawsuits ruled on the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But suits like this have dealt more with process and legal questions than the science itself.
In his McClatchy story on the judge’s unusual request for tutorials, reporter Stuart Levenworth describes the development as a climate version of the infamous Scopes monkey trial. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
As we’ve said all along, the crux of the #ExxonKnew issue is that while its science, conducted in in-house labs, recognized that its product causes climate change, the organizations the oil giant funds and advertisements they ran clouded that fact. That discrepancy is the deception that forms the basis of the fraud allegations leveled against Exxon.
The fossil fuel companies aren’t arguing that climate change is a hoax. In fact, their argument is that they’ve never misled the public, and have always been a part of the mainstream scientific establishment.
To get an understanding of the gulf between consensus science and denial groups Exxon’s funded, however, Judge Alsup would need to request a tutorial from on of those groups, or perhaps compare Exxon’s tutorial to one of Heartland’s laughable reports. Whether or not the plaintiffs will be able to convince the judge that fossil fuel organizations are responsible for the pseudoscientific output of the groups they fund will determine the outcome of the case.
Whether intentional or not, this tutorial puts Exxon in a bind. It could claim to be part of the consensus, making it obvious that the organizations it funded were deceptive, thereby proving the point of the #ExxonKnew campaign. Alternatively, Exxon’s tutorial could substantially differ from the cities’ presentations of the science. In this case it would be easy enough to portray the oil giant as outside the mainstream, undercutting its defense and boosting the suits against it.
Either way, someone should make sure Exxon sends its tutorial to Rex Tillerson. The Trump administration still seems pretty unsure about things, so it could probably benefit from hearing about the science from a group it can trust.
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