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'Climate Tutorials' Pit Planet Wreckers Against Major Cities in Historic Court Hearing

"There's really no way for oil companies to come out of this thing looking good."

The proceedings stem from a lawsuit brought by San Francisco and Oakland against oil and gas giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell.  (Photo: Peg Hunter/flickr/cc)

An usual hearing took place Wednesday before a federal judge in San Francisco, where both sides presented court-ordered "tutorials" on climate science.

"This will be the closest that we have seen to a trial on climate science in the United States, to date," Michael Burger, a lawyer who heads the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told McClatchy earlier this month.

The proceedings stem from a lawsuit brought by San Francisco and Oakland against oil and gas giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell. The California cities say the fossil fuel companies knew they were driving the climate crisis, intentionally misled the public à la Big Tobacco, and should shell out funds to pay for both past and future damage caused by climate change.

In the estimation of Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, the proceedings mean "The industry is now facing the reckoning its internal documents suggest it knew was coming decades ago."

As Common Dreams reported U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ordered the cities and companies "to conduct a two-part tutorial on the subject of global warming and climate change."

Among the eight questions Alsup asked (pdf) the sides to answer in their tutorials are: "What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?" and "What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?"

As such, Grist reported, the proceedings "will give Americans the opportunity to follow along as big polluters finally go on record about climate science and climate denialism."

Writing earlier this month at NRDC's onEarth, Jeff Turrentine argued:

There's really no way for oil companies to come out of this thing looking good. If they acknowledge that the science is real, they lend support to the plaintiffs' argument that oil companies have known all along that their activity contributes to climate change but have continued to engage in it anyway. On the other hand, if their spokespeople try to cast doubt on the science in any way, they risk looking like fools, or knaves, or both.

Theodore Boutrous, a lawyer representing Chevron, did not fully dispute the science. Rather, according to Jessica Wentz, who is among those inside the courtroom, "it appears that Chevron's strategy is to portray climate science as a field that is characterized by significant uncertainty and conflicting scientific theories." 

Amy Westervelt‏, also in the courtroom, added: "Fairly amusing to have the Chevron lawyer's IPCC presentation followed by an IPCC contributor pointing out how much science has moved on since last assessment."

Lawyers for the other firms did not speak over objections to the court's jurisdiction.

Wiles said "The decision by ExxonMobil and others to sit out the tutorial is yet another indicator that they are not comfortable being as forthcoming in public as they are in private."

According to Alyssa Johl, Alsup gave the other companies a two-week deadline to agree or disagree with each of Chevron's statements.

This post has been updated from its original version to include comments from Wiles.

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