On Wednesday morning, Jim Hyden woke up well before dawn, braved a spitting rain, and skipped a day at work so he could arrive at the Federal District Courthouse in San Francisco at 6 am sharp to have “a chance to see some history.”
“I’m very interested in hearing the oil companies talk in court…about what they knew and when they it about climate change,” Hyden said as he waited in line with dozens of attorneys, reporters, and concerned citizens for an unprecedented court-ordered “climate-change tutorial” to begin. “And [to hear] what they did after they learned about it.”
It will be up to historians to decide whether the five-hour-long climate-science seminar that took place yesterday in federal court made history. During the weeks leading up to the hearing, boosters had promised “the Scopes Monkey Trial for climate change,” a unique chance to litigate the science of human-driven global warming in a court of law. In the end, there were no Clarence Darrow-like rhetorical fireworks; just scientists and attorneys dispassionately reviewing the evidence about how human activities are transforming Earth’s atmosphere.
Yet the hearing still marked an important milestone: For the first time, some of the world’s biggest carbon polluters were forced to explain to a US court whether they accept basic climate change science. Billions of dollars are at stake. The proceedings in San Francisco, according to legal experts, could shape the legal terrain for the lawsuits New York City and other plaintiffs are bringing against ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel giants for the damage climate-fueled storms, sea-level rise, and other impacts have caused and will continue to cause in years to come.
“You can’t get away with sitting there in silence,” Judge William Alsup pointedly said to attorneys from ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, and other fossil-fuel corporations at the close of the day. “If you disagree [about the information the court had just heard], you need to let me know. Otherwise, I will deem that you agree.”
The climate-science crash course before Judge Alsup was one of the first steps in an ambitious legal effort by some governments to hold oil, gas, and coal companies liable for the costs of climate-change related extreme weather events and adaptation planning. Eight California cities and counties have filed lawsuits against a range of carbon polluters. New York City has sued the five biggest non-state-owned oil companies—ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell.
“For decades, Big Oil ravaged the environment, and Big Oil copied Big Tobacco,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a January 10 press conference announcing New York’s lawsuit. “They used a classic cynical playbook. They denied and denied and denied that their product was lethal. Meanwhile, they spent a lot of time hooking society on that lethal product.… It’s time for them to start paying for the damage they’ve done.”