Courtroom Science Lab: Federal Judge Tutored in Climate Change

By David DeBolt

SAN FRANCISCO — Opponents in a lawsuit rarely find themselves in the same corner of a legal boxing match. In federal court here on March 21, though, the gloves stayed on: Leading climate change experts and oil industry representatives largely agreed our planet is warming, our seas rising.

“You have counsel for fossil fuel companies on the record conceding the fundamentals of climate change,” said Jessica Wentz, a lawyer with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University who watched the unusual hearing. “It could be the first time such a clear admission” that sea-level rise is linked to human activity was presented in a court setting, she said.

Climatologists in the U.S. and England offered their views in a first-of-its kind hearing before U.S. District Judge William Alsup, during which an attorney for Chevron acknowledged that human activities are contributing to sea-level rise and our warming planet.

San Francisco, Oakland and other cities and counties have filed lawsuits against Chevron, Exxon, Shell, BP and Conoco Phillips to recover costs associated with adapting to climate change. Alsup called for the four-hour “tutorial” on climate science “so the poor judge can learn some science” before the suits filed last year go any further, he said.

So on Wednesday, attorneys for San Francisco and Oakland brought in experts from UC Santa Cruz, the University of Illinois and Oxford University to explain climate science to Alsup. An attorney for Chevron spoke on behalf of the five big oil companies listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

At the start, Alsup insisted the “tutorial” was not a traditional hearing — no one was under oath and no one other than the judge could ask questions, making it more of a fact-finding mission. The attorneys and experts were tasked with explaining to Alsup the history of climate science, from long-ago ice ages to modern scientific studies, and their presentations were technical, not political.

The lawsuits seek to recover costs to pay for sea walls and other shoreline defenses to protect against rising sea levels that could inundate airport runways, roads and coastal homes and businesses. They also accuse the oil companies of hiding for decades that they knew fossil fuel use contributed to global warming and sea level rise.

In addition to Oakland and San Francisco, Richmond, Santa Cruz and the counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz have filed similar lawsuits against oil and gas companies.

Myles R. Allen, an Oxford University professor of Geosystem Science, outlined the early history and research regarding climate science. Next, Gary Griggs, professor of earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, showed slides of what sea-level rise will mean for Oakland International Airport, which sits on landfill. Even an extra one foot of water would be detrimental to the airport and bayfront areas of the East and South Bay, he said. Finally, Don Wuebbles, a leading expert from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Atmospheric Science, pointed to the increasing trends in California wildfires, which are bigger and burning hotter than ever before, he said. Wuebbles is also a co-author of the “Climate Science Special Report,” which he called the most comprehensive report of its kind ever presented to U.S. residents.

“Our climate is changing, it’s changing very rapidly, and it’s happening now,” Wuebbles said. “About 10 times faster than any other changes we’ve seen since the end of the last ice age.”

While Alsup pointed out that Chevron’s attorney and the experts speaking for the plaintiffs largely agreed, Wentz said the oil companies’ attorney, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., placed emphasis on the uncertainty of climate science.

After the tutorial, Boutrous said climate change should be decided as a policy matter.

“The key argument we made is you can’t resolve issues like this in court,” Boutrous said. “You can’t resolve these sorts of global issues in one case.”

In similar cases, judges have tended to agree that the court is not the proper place to decide on “public nuisance” lawsuits related to climate change. Chevron on Tuesday filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit; Alsup is expected to rule on that motion next month.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera called the presentations “telling” and said that no credible scientist disputes global warming. Herrera was returning from an out-of-town trip Wednesday, so senior attorneys from his office appeared on his behalf, along with Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker.

“It’s time for these oil companies to acknowledge what they’ve tried to hide from the public for years. Our planet is warming, and the scientific consensus is clear,” Herrera said in a statement.

He added, “What we saw today was one oil company begrudgingly accepting the scientific consensus while trying to overemphasize the extent of scientific uncertainty.”Φ

David DeBolt covers Oakland, CA., for the East Bay Times (San Francisco Bay Area). DeBolt grew up in the Bay Area and has worked for daily newspapers in Palo Alto, Fairfield and Walnut Creek. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012. This article appeared on March 21 in the East Bay Times.

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