Time To Wake Up: Friends of the Court
As-prepared for delivery
Madam President, in California several counties and cities are suing the Big Oil companies to hold them liable for the damages climate change is causing to their infrastructure.
As judges consider these cases, one thing they may want to keep in mind is Big Oil’s history of deception and lies. A group of scientific experts filed this friend-of-the-court brief carefully charting that pattern of deception and lies. The group of scholars and scientists chronicled how the fossil fuel companies had actual knowledge of the risks of their products and had taken “proactive steps to conceal their knowledge and discredit climate science” while at the same time taking steps to protect their own assets from the impacts of climate change.
It’s a 51-page document, so let me get straight to the conclusion: Big Oil has known for a very long time that the production and burning of fossil fuels would be disastrous for the planet, yet they were doing everything in their power to confuse the public, undermine the scientific evidence of the dangers, and prevent any action to stave off worldwide climate change.
This brief makes a fascinating read. Here are some highlights.
Way back in 1959, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and I was just a small child, Columbia University held a symposium attended by oil industry executives to mark the 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry. At that event, Dr. Edward Teller, a renowned physicist, warned the industry about global warming:
[A] temperature rise corresponding to a 10 percent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. . . [T]his chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.
So, in 1959, they knew.
A few years later, in 1965, at the American Petroleum Institute’s annual meeting, API President Frank Ikard briefed the Big Oil trade group on a report from President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee that predicted significant global warming by the end of the century, caused by fossil fuels, and warned “there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out.”
So, in 1965, they knew.
API then commissioned a Stanford Research Institute report on the problem, made available to its members in 1968. The report said that:
[R]ising levels of CO2 would likely result in rising global temperatures. . . . [T]he result could be melting ice caps, rising sea levels, warming oceans, and serious environmental damage on a global scale.
Then, in 1969, Stanford produced a supplemental report for API. As the authors of the brief tell the Ninth Circuit, “The report projected that . . . atmospheric CO2 concentrations would reach 370 ppm by 2000—exactly what it turned out to be.”
So, in ‘68 and ‘69, they knew.
Big Oil didn’t just rely on API to do their research on climate change. Ed Garvey was an Exxon scientist at the time. He says:
By the late 1970s, global warming was no longer speculative. . . The issue was not were we going to have a problem, the issue was simply how soon and how fast and how bad was it going to be. Not if.
Indeed, Exxon did a lot of climate research, and they understood the science well. A 1979 internal Exxon study found that:
[The] increase [in CO2 concentration] is due to fossil fuel combustion . . . and the present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.
Meanwhile, API had put together a task force on “The CO2 Problem.” In 1980, Dr. John Laurman told this task force that: foreseeable temperature increases could have “major economic consequences [and] globally catastrophic effects.”
Back at Exxon, Roger Cohen, director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, warned in 1981 about the magnitude of the problem:
[I]t is distinctly possible that [Exxon’s planning] scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).
In 1982, Cohen reiterated his warning:
[O]ver the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2. . . . [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.
Unanimous agreement in the scientific community. Think about that. In 1982, Exxon’s own scientist stated that there was unanimous agreement in the scientific community, but almost four decades later, the Trump administration pretends we just don’t know.
Now back to the brief. In 1982, an internal Exxon corporate primer said that, in order to mitigate the effects of global warning:
[There is a need for] major reductions in fossil fuel combustion. . . . [T]here are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered . . . . [O]nce the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.
So on into the late 70s and early 80s, they knew.
This is from a 1988 report by Shell Oil’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group:
Man-made carbon dioxide, released into and accumulated in the atmosphere, is believed to warm the earth through the so-called greenhouse effect. . . . [B]y the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilise the situation.
So, long story short, Mr./Madam President: Big Oil knew.
But Big Oil also realized that understanding climate change meant limiting carbon emissions, and that would hurt the industry’s bottom line. So the oil producers began to tell something different to the public.
A 1998 Exxon internal memo acknowledged that the “greenhouse effect may be one of the most significant environmental issues for the 1990s.” But Exxon’s position would be to “[e]mphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect.”
That became the drumbeat of the industry: minimize the danger, undermine the science.
The industry set up front groups with innocuous-sounding names like the “Global Climate Coalition” and the “Information Council on the Environment” to do its PR work. The scientific brief notes this bit of propaganda from 1996 from the so-called Global Climate Coalition:
If there is an anthropogenic component to this observed warming, the GCC believes that it must be very small.
An earlier draft of the same document admitted the truth:
[The] scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impacts of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.
Money poured from oil industry coffers into these denialist groups. In 1991, the “Information Council on the Environment” launched a nationwide campaign with one goal: to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).”
The polluters kept this up all the way though the 90s. This 1998 API strategy memo tells what they wanted people to believe – even though they knew better.
[It is] not known for sure whether (a) climate change actually is occurring, or (b) if it is, whether humans really have any influence on it.
Here’s Martin Hoffert, who was an Exxon scientist for 20 years:
Even though we were writing all these papers . . . [saying] that climate change from CO2 emissions was going to change the climate of the earth . . . the front office which was concerned with promoting the products of the company was also supporting people that we call climate change deniers.
Yet even as they spun this massive fraud out to the public, Big Oil internally took the evidence of climate damage seriously enough to factor it into their own planning. For instance, in designing and building the Sable gas field project off the shores of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mobil, Shell, and Imperial Oil explicitly told their engineers about sea level rise: that “[a]n estimated rise . . . due to global warming, of 0.5 meters may be assumed.”
Big Oil protected their own assets against the sea level rise, while funding a massive campaign of deception to fool the public and policy makers. They protected themselves. And they connived to prevent the rest of us from taking steps to protect ourselves.
There are unsung heroes in this climate battle. Among them number the dedicated and assiduous group of scholars and scientists tracking the climate denial apparatus. Patiently, and thoroughly, they assembled this record of industry malfeasance, and made sure that the long history of industry deception is part of the court’s official record.
I yield the floor.
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